One of the most important features for consumers purchasing a new car is engine efficiency. This term describes the percentage of chemical efficiency in gas that is converted to mechanical efficiencies that move the car. The higher the rate of efficiency, the more effectively you’re using the gas put into your car.
While today’s vehicles provide better fuel economy than just a few years ago, more than half of the gas you pump into your car goes to waste. That means roughly 60 cents out of every dollar you spend on fuel does nothing to move your vehicle down the road.
Internal combustion automobile engines aren’t very efficient, using less than 40% to power the car and a small amount to power engine accessories. The rest is thrown away as “waste heat.” Consider this too: The AAA annual analysis of driving costs reveals that per-mile fuel costs are higher than per-mile maintenance, repair and tire costs combined. So, while you’re spending most of your driving costs on fuel, more than half goes to nothing but hot air.
Manufacturers continue to try to lessen the gap in engine efficiency, working on new technologies such as stop-start systems, low RPM operation, turbocharging and more. Consumers, too, can take steps of their own to improve efficiency and save money on fuel.
If you’re looking for a new car, consider models that have the highest EPA-estimated fuel economy ratings. You might want to consider a model that uses the stop-start system that shuts down the engine when the car is stopped in traffic. While it takes some getting used to, this system can deliver a gain in efficiency, especially if your commute is low speed, stop-and-go traffic.
Consumers should examine their own driving behavior as well. Moderate acceleration at low RPMs, staying within the speed limit, coasting to stopped traffic, and using cruise control to maintain a safe, legal speed, will all stretch your tank of gas further. “Drive as if you have an egg between your foot and the gas pedal,” advises AAA’s Car Doctor, John Paul. “Going easy on the gas and the brake will maximize your fuel economy.” Also, simple car maintenance — such as inflating tires to their proper level, ensuring you’re using the recommended motor oil, and making sure your gas cap has a proper seal — can also improve your driving efficiency.
The AAA automotive engineering team recently conducted research on halogen headlights — the kind on more than 80% of vehicles on the road today — with surprising results. Examining the illumination provided at low- and high-beam settings, AAA determined that halogen headlights on the low-beam setting are insufficient when driving at highway speeds on roads with no additional overhead lighting.
Simple math bears this out. At 55 mph, a driver requires about 500 feet of roadway to perceive an obstacle, react to it, and bring the car to a complete and safe stop. Yet halogen lights illuminate only 300 feet on low beams, leaving about 200 feet of dark road where obstacles are unseen — with no time for drivers to react. In fact, most low beams only help you stop in time if you’re driving no faster than 35 mph.
Late model vehicles with newer high-intensity discharge (HID) lights illuminate up to 400 feet; and light-emitting diode (LED) lights only illuminate up to 450 feet. But even these newer models are lacking.
What can drivers do now? Thankfully, most highways are dotted with lights to make up for the headlight shortfall. If overhead lights are not present, using high beams can improve sight distances by an average of 28%. Drivers should get in a habit of using their vehicle’s high beams, making sure to dim them in the presence of other drivers.
AAA continues to research this issue. The automotive engineering group recently studied Adaptive Driving Beam (ADB) headlights, which are currently used in Europe and Canada, but are illegal in the U.S. ADB headlights — also called smart headlights — shine as brightly as traditional lights that have high beams, but come with new technology that prevents glare from shining into oncoming vehicles.
Another big problem with headlights is visibility. Pitted, yellow and hazy lights significantly reduce output, and can scatter light instead of focusing it on the roadway. A basic headlight restoration kit — available at auto supply stores — doubles the light intensity and reduces light scattering. For more damaged lights, a AAA Approved Auto Repair facility can do more aggressive restoration or even replace them if necessary.
It may seem like something from a sci-fi movie, but the concept of vehicles that drive themselves is closer than you think. Many companies, including Tesla, Mercedes, BMW and even Apple are actively working on autonomous car technology. However, while completely driverless vehicles are not yet commonplace on our roads, more and more models are incorporating technology to help the driving process. This technology, known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), is not designed to replace a driver, but to help the driver respond to potentially dangerous situations.
ADAS use ultrasonic, radar, laser, camera, thermal and infrared sensors to monitor the outside of a vehicle. Onboard computers use the information to take action, which could be as simple as illuminating a warning light when a car enters a driver’s blind spot. More complex systems take control of the vehicle, such as applying the brakes and/or steering to avoid a collision.
The potential for ADAS to save lives is huge. Human error causes the vast majority of the 2.4 million injuries and 35,000 deaths from traffic crashes every year. Research shows fewer claims for vehicles with ADAS vs. identical vehicles without the technology, demonstrating the systems are working to prevent or reduce the severity of crashes. Putting a dent in those numbers would have a huge effect.
However, a new study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that most drivers don’t fully understand how ADAS works, and tend to over-rely on the systems. “As good as these systems have become, they’re not a substitute for a fully engaged driver,” says John Paul, AAA’s Car Doctor. “When you’re behind the wheel, your primary responsibility is to drive.”
AAA recommends consumers get more education about ADAS at the point of sale (from the dealer), as they expect ADAS to be incorporated as standard equipment in most new car models, paving the way for fully autonomous vehicles in (perhaps) the not-too-distant future!
For years, hybrid vehicles have used stop-start technology to improve fuel efficiency. This means the engine shuts down when the vehicle is at a complete stop – such as in traffic or at a stop light. The car’s accessories, such as lights, wipers, audio and climate control, keep operating as usual. As soon as the driver releases the brakes, the engine restarts automatically. It takes some getting used to, but the intention is to reduce fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. More and more, this stop-start technology is now appearing on conventional gasoline engine vehicles as well.
Depending on the price of gas and individual driving conditions, annual fuel cost savings are estimated at around $167 – more than 12,000 miles per year in a vehicle that averages 20 mpg. Stop-start systems, which add about $300 to the traditional vehicle powertrain, can pay for themselves in just two years. However, there is one big trade-off.
A stop-start system requires a special, high-capacity battery, which can cost twice as much as a traditional battery. When the engine shuts off in a stop-start system, the battery must assume the load for all the electrical needs, including charging ports, navigation and infotainment systems, lights, climate control and more. And, an engine that experiences frequent start-ups (potentially hundreds per day) requires extra battery capability.
Stop-start technology is growing fast, and most manufacturers have indicated this technology will be standard equipment on models over the next few years. John Paul, AAA’s Car Doctor, has road tested more than 1,000 new vehicles, and noticed an improvement in the technology. “Stop-start systems are much more refined and less obtrusive in day-to-day driving,” he says. “I recently drove a 2018 Dodge RAM truck and barely noticed the restart after being stopped at a traffic light. While it may take some drivers a little time to get used to, everyone should expect this technology on their next new vehicle.”
New research from AAA reveals that worn tires can cause a deadly hazard for motorists in wet weather. Performance testing at various highway speeds revealed that average stopping distances are increased a staggering 43% - an additional 87 feet - for worn tires, compared to new.
The key difference is traction. Tire treads literally connect a car to the road, and in wet conditions worn tires will completely lose contact and skid (or hydroplane). Current industry guidelines and state laws frequently recommend that drivers wait until tread depth reaches 2/32” to replace tires. Yet AAA’s study tested new tires against tires worn to 4/32”- higher than most recommendations - and found increased stopping distance, and a reduction in handling ability on wet pavement.
John Paul, senior manager for traffic safety at AAA Northeast, says drivers should look to replace their tires when the tread depth reaches 4/32” - when stopping distances have already begun to deteriorate. “Waiting longer can be hazardous,” he adds. “Today’s vehicles are built to go longer between routine maintenance checks, so drivers may not be alerted to the tread wear on their tires until it’s too late.”
A simple test is to slip an upside-down quarter between tire grooves - on the outside, in the middle, and on the inside of the tire. If you can see all of Washington’s head on the quarter, you need to start shopping for tires.
View the complete report.
If Dorothy oiled the Tin Man with synthetic oil, he probably wouldn’t have rusted on the way to the Emerald City. That’s because new research by AAA Automotive Engineering on engine oil quality revealed synthetic oil outperformed conventional oil by an average of nearly 50%. What does this mean for members? For only about $5 more a month, synthetic oil will provide significantly better engine protection than conventional oil.
While consumers don’t generally want to spend additional money on synthetic oil changes (about $70 vs. $38 for a conventional oil change), the long-term benefits are worth considering.
“It’s understandable that drivers may be skeptical of any service that’s nearly twice the cost of the alternative,” said John Paul, senior manager for traffic safety at AAA Northeast. “But, while manufacturer-approved conventional oils won’t harm a vehicle’s engine, the extra $30 per oil change could actually save money in the long run by protecting critical engine components over time.”
The Car Doctor also points out, “If you are a DIYer, the difference in prices between conventional and synthetic make the switch to synthetic oil an easy decision.”
Synthetic oils have superior resistance to deterioration, and AAA’s research showed they would especially benefit newer vehicles with turbocharger engines and vehicles that tow heavy loads, operate in extreme temperatures, or are frequently driven in stop-and-go traffic.
While only a few vehicles require synthetic oil, Paul says all vehicles would benefit from making the switch. “Upgrading to synthetic oil is not merely a selling ploy by repair shops,” adds Paul. “More than 80% of service professionals use synthetic oil in their own personal vehicles because they know the value it has on the long-term health of the automobile.”
The study focused on eight industry-standard ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) tests that evaluated the quality of both synthetic and conventional engine oils in terms of shear stability, deposit formation, volatility, low-temperature pumpability, oxidation resistance and oxidation-induced rheological changes.
You may not be aware, but every time you use your vehicle’s navigation or touch screen audio systems, get a diagnostics report or maintenance reminder, or have your doors unlocked remotely by OnStar, you’re using telematics. Telematics is the use of wireless information to enable your car to interact with the outside world.
For the most part, telematics has made driving safer and more enjoyable with enhancements such as:
“Telematics is a growing sector in the automotive landscape,” says John Paul, senior manager for traffic safety at AAA Northeast. “It offers many benefits to drivers, such as convenience, comfort, and safety. But the use of telematics brings concerns that many in the industry haven’t fully addressed yet.” Any information that can be scanned from a car’s computer system can be transmitted. This includes engine performance, vehicle location, even the driver’s weight. For example, telematics can monitor driving behavior. Some big insurance names use this information to offer discounts based on how you drive when you drive, and where you drive. This usage-based car insurance (UBI) provides more competitive auto insurance quotes if the technology deems you a “safe driver.” While this may be economical for most AAA members, several experts have raised concerns about potential discrimination, privacy issues, and the potential for unfair surcharges.
Many new telematic features in vehicles, like infotainment options and touch screens, can be a distraction to drivers. A 2013 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study found that these types of vehicle interactions are among the most distracting for drivers, and a 2015 AAA study of teen drivers found distracting behavior a leading cause (58%) of all crashes.
“Automakers will have to work on ways to reduce the risks and minimize distractions for all drivers,” continues Paul. “And government officials, insurance companies, and individual drivers will have to sort through the complicated issues that come with monitored driving behavior.”
Nearly nine out of 10 consumers agree that automakers should continue to improve the fuel efficiency for all vehicles, and believe that fuel economy is the area with the most room for improvement in their current vehicle.
“There are many ways car companies can make their vehicles more fuel efficient,” says John Paul, senior manager for traffic safety at AAA Northeast. “Downsizing engines, improving aerodynamics, and selling more electric and fuel cell-powered vehicles are a few examples. But one of the biggest changes will be to reduce the weight.”
More and more, manufacturers are adopting aluminum alloys and other lightweight materials to shave pounds off their vehicles. In fact, the amount of aluminum used in cars is expected to increase significantly by 2025, according to a recent study published by the consulting and research firm Ducker Worldwide. Components are being retooled in lighter high-strength steel, aluminum, plastic and composites. Every pound counts; studies have shown that reducing vehicle weight by 10% can improve gas mileage by 6 to 8%.
The new BMW i3 electric car may be the poster child for light weighting. The compact four-seater weighs a svelte 2,635 pounds, despite carrying a 500-pound battery pack. This was accomplished by using a carbon fiber passenger compartment and aluminum subframes that carry the battery and powertrain.
Despite using some similar materials, you needn’t worry that modern vehicles will crumple like soda cans. Lightweight cars and trucks will still be safe thanks to high-strength metal alloys and high-tech composites such as carbon fiber. These materials can be just as strong as heavier materials, and with proper engineering, they are often even better at absorbing collision impact energy.
“Despite carrying higher sticker prices, lightweight vehicles will use less fuel over the life of the car, allowing consumers to recoup the higher costs,” states Paul.
Collision repair costs and insurance premiums may also go up due to special training and equipment needs, though some experts believe the difference will be minor since the portion of most insurance premiums devoted to collision repair is small. In the end, both consumers and the environment will benefit from lightweight vehicles. That’s a diet we can probably all agree on.
*Source: Consumers Union National Vehicle Fuel Economy Poll, June 2017.
You may have noticed gas prices tend to increase in spring and summer. Many motorists believe it’s because more people are on the roads when the weather gets nicer. But it’s actually more technical than that.
There are two blends of gas – one for summer and one for winter. The difference between the two lies in something called Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP), which is a measure of how easily fuel evaporates at a given temperature. The higher the RVP, the easier it evaporates.
Winter-blend fuel has a higher RVP because the fuel has to evaporate at low temperatures in order for the engine to operate correctly. The higher the RVP, the more easily the vehicle will start on a cold day, and the smoother the engine will run. This easier starting comes at a cost; you’ll see a slight reduction in miles per gallon.
Summer-blend fuel uses different additives that lower the RVP in order to prevent evaporation in warmer temperatures and decrease emissions that lead to smog and unhealthy ozone levels. While summer-blend gas provides slightly better mileage, it also more expensive to produce – to the tune of a few cents per gallon. Those costs are inevitably passed on to the consumer, and that’s why prices increase.
Refineries switch blends twice a year, in the fall and spring. As a consumer you don’t need to worry about the switch, but now you understand the reason for the higher prices at the pump.
More and more vehicles come equipped with features to assist drivers, such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance. When these two systems are combined to work as one, this is known as active driving assistance (ADA), which is considered to be the highest level of automated vehicle technology available to consumers today.
ADA is a level beyond common advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), combining braking, accelerating, and steering to actively assist the driver. ADAS – such as blind-spot warnings and automatic braking – engage only when needed. Think of ADA systems as “always-on", where ADAS systems activate when a situation calls for it.
A recent research study from AAA found that over the course of 4,000 miles of real-world driving, ADA-equipped vehicles experienced some type of issue every 8 miles. This included difficulty keeping the vehicles in their lanes, coming too close to guardrails or other vehicles, and disengaging with little notice (instantly giving control back to the driver). All these issues are extremely dangerous if the driver has become inattentive or distracted, or is too reliant on the system.
For instance, on public roads, almost 75% of all errors with ADA systems involved erratic lane position or lane departure. And, when approaching a simulated disabled vehicle, a collision occurred 66% of the time.
AAA recommends manufacturers perfect the technology as much as possible before deploying into a larger fleet of vehicles. While studies reveal that only one in ten drivers would trust riding in a self-driving car, a future of automated vehicles doesn’t seem so far away. These systems are still in their early stages of development, and nothing can replace an attentive, engaged driver on the roadways.
Vehicle escape tools – such as hammers or spring-loaded devices – are highly recommended for the rare but dangerous situation where you need to escape your car after an accident. Ideally, it’s something you’ll keep in your glove compartment and never need to use, but recent AAA research has shown that not all tools perform as expected. And it's largely due to newer car technology.
A study from AAA found that most escape tools will break tempered glass, but not laminated glass. In research of six tools – three hammer style and three spring-loaded – none were able to break laminated glass, which stayed intact even after being cracked. The study also found that spring-loaded tools were more effective in breaking tempered windows than the hammer-style.
Tempered glass, commonly used for side windows, is designed to shatter into small pieces. Laminated glass, typically used for windshields, has a layer of plastic between two pieces of tempered glass. This layer increases the strength of the glass, holding it together and preventing it from shattering.
Today’s cars usually use the two types of glass, but more and more manufacturers are using laminated glass in their side windows. In fact, about 33% percent of all 2018 models have laminated side windows, a 67-percent increase from years prior. About 4 percent of 2018 models have laminated front, side and rear windows.
A majority of cars still has at least one window made of tempered glass, so it’s important to know what kind of glass each of your vehicle’s windows is made of. Check the label on each window of your car to determine if the glass is tempered or laminated. Get a tool that’s right for you and familiarize yourself with how it works. You’ll likely never have to use it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.
The latest study by AAA found that the average annual cost of owning and operating a vehicle in 2020 was $9,561, slightly higher than the previous year. The costs are calculated by averaging depreciation, financing, fuel, insurance, maintenance, and license/registration/taxes for five top-selling models. While the cost of fuel and financing went down, all other areas saw increases, leading to the higher overall cost.
For a driver averaging about 15,000 miles per year, small sedans had the lowest overall costs at 50.1 cents per mile; not surprisingly, pickups had the highest overall costs, coming in at 75.39 cents per mile.
AAA has published Your Driving Costs since 1950, when gas sold for 27-cents per gallon and driving cost about 9 cents per mile. Calculate your own driving costs with our interactive worksheet, and learn more about the annual study.
More than 53 million vehicles, car seats, and tires were recalled in 2019. Yet some people ignore recall notices, even though repairs of these issues are done free of charge. The National Highway Safety Administration has developed a new app, SaferCar, to let you know if your vehicle(s), tires, or car seats have been recalled and will notify you if a recall is announced. The app also provides access to other NHTSA online tools, such as safety ratings and the car seat finder.
AAA’s Car Doctor, John Paul, chatted with Stephen Riddle, Director of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation to discuss how the SaferCar app works, and talk about the importance of recalls and other safety measures in today’s cars. View the conversation.