Gasoline-Free Breathing, 1 Car at a Time
As automakers adopt auto start/stop systems, city dwellers can reclaim the air.
By the time this story runs, I’ll be reclined for the next four hours on a late-morning train to New York. From Boston, there is no better way to get there than Amtrak. No unwashed floors from the thousands of people waddling past airport security in their dirty socks, belts in hand, like a huge middle-school locker room. No crowded, stale Peter Pan buses that stop at that same Roy Rogers halfway through the trip. And no traffic, not at any time in the day.
Amtrak, despite its high-speed dreams that will never be realized, is the most relaxing form of travel. You pay your fare, show up and walk aboard without hassle. The trip is quiet, smooth, clean and, even when fully booked, offers enough room to stretch out. The price is usually silly, to the point where it’d be more economical to drive a Bugatti Veyron for those 220 miles and park it in a New York garage. Seriously, we’re talking tickets costing more than $100, without any Acela frills, one-way.
But aside from price, many Amtrak cars have a pretty neat feature most road cars don’t: an automatic start/stop system that can shut the diesel engine down at idle. I’ll leave the specifics of electric traction motors to the train enthusiasts, but the point is simple: Turn off the belching engine when it’s not being used to pull.
More than 30 states have anti-idling laws in effect, mostly aimed at diesel-powered commercial trucks and school buses. Yet outside of specific, controlled areas -- say, the cab stands at Boston Logan Airport, which have signs posted and lots of state troopers watching -- it’s a pretty difficult rule to enforce, especially when it’s cold out.
When I run along the Charles River during rush hour, I restrict my breathing while passing the hundreds of drivers trapped in traffic. Huffing fumes, even for a matter of seconds, is enough to make me nauseated, not to mention whatever it’s doing to my lung tissue. In Mexico City, you are practically licking the tailpipe of every 1960s Beetle and overloaded bus in the capital. The air quality is so horrendous and the traffic so absurd (when turning, drivers crowd intersections three rows deep to get across) that you never, ever get a fresh gulp of air. Other major cities in India and China, from what I keep reading, are even worse. No one can move, no one can breathe.
So it’s with great pleasure that I see auto start/stop systems making their way to U.S. cars such as the 2013 Ford Fusion, even though it’s a $295 option. Today, automakers realize that slapping the word “hybrid” comes with clear expectations -- namely, superior fuel economy, higher prices and draining performance. When General Motors rolled out the Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura hybrids in 2007, the cars sold at a $4,000 premium, the norm for most hybrids at the time, but delivered comparatively meager fuel savings. There was no mind-blowing surge in fuel economy as on the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, just a few ticks in the city rating. They failed.
Or did they? Although sales flopped, the technology was simple and cheaper than the complexity of a full-fledged hybrid. A larger starter motor and a tiny battery pack made for a decent auto start/stop system -- if not an actual hybrid that could travel on electric power. There were no major powertrain modifications.
Now, GM has beefed up the system with a larger battery on the 2012 Buick LaCrosse and upcoming 2013 Chevrolet Malibu and called it eAssist. But even without a battery, is there any marketing shame to selling a cleaner car in the city? Are people really going to think their engines are dying when another part of their brains know that they’re actually saving precious gas money? I think not. These nonbattery systems, for minimal cost, are worth it to the mom jogging along the river with her baby.
Of course, when automakers fit bad auto start/stop systems, it’s easy to think something’s broken. The Honda Insight shudders the steering column, hard, when shutting down and restarting, at least it did when I drove one two years ago. So did the now-discontinued Nissan Altima Hybrid. A Porsche Cayenne Turbo, after I found the start/stop button among 44 other buttons on the console, was plain goofy trying to restart its giant 4.8-liter V8 engine, revving it high as if the engine were cold. It felt as if the Cayenne were burning more fuel.
Two of the best auto start/stop systems happen to be on the two best hybrids, the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid. Their smoothness and very mild vibrations when pulling away from a stop on gasoline are noticeable only to journalists looking for flaws, and to hypermilers. The Volvo V60 I tested in Sweden over the winter -- a manual transmission, mind you -- was just as brilliant and rattle-free. In traffic, these systems are a real blessing, and you never lose air conditioning or any other electrical functions.
Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, by making the driver switch on this fuel-saving feature every time, have it wrong. BMW, in its new 3 Series, switches the system on by default, as does Ford. Automatic start/stop systems should work exactly as they sound: seamless, and without disruption. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Just know, however, that when I step outside Penn Station, I’m not going to chide a New York cabbie for leaving his engine on at the curb. Mostly because I like having both feet.
Start stop seems like a good idea in general, but I am guessing the first generation of this product will be allot like the first generation of most products. You will want to own it when the 2nd or 3rd generation comes out.
I have 5 going on 6 kids with my wife, we are going to be driving what most consider to be gas guzzlers for a long time. Finding small ways to save on gas consumption is important. But in our case since we are usually buying vans and cars that are 8-12 years old my new car is a 2002, being able to find ways to save gas in these vehicles is my priority.
Boston do not have to worry about belching diesel locomotives as the line is all electric
There should be no need for enforcement, people should be doing it because they understand that by idling, they both waste around 10-20% of the fuel and pollute the air.
This country needs more environmental awareness education. A lot of it, too.
I agree with you 100%! It always amazes me how long people will sit leaving their car running for no reason. Just the other day a woman in a Suburban parked next to me and jumped out. I was sitting in my car talking to a friend. A few minutes later, I got out, and realized the Sub was empty and running! Why?? It was neither a hot nor cold day, so no reason to keep the climate controls on. Whether or not she was just "running in", it's not like she had to come back out and start it with a hand crank. It just struck me as being a collosal waste of fuel, and also being totally lacking in consideration of conservation of resources and of the enviroment. It's one of those things the self-important people like to do, I've noticed.
I see this quite often actually. I NEVER leave my car idling for more than a minute. If I'm waiting for someone I'll shut it off till they're ready, and if I'm stuck ina traffic jam I'll shut it off as well. I also avoid drive thru's, such as the bank and fast food, at all costs...that's also a big waste of fuel to me.
People need to smarten up.
More than 30 states have anti-idling laws in effect, mostly aimed at diesel-powered commercial trucks and school buses. Yet outside of specific, controlled areas -- say, the cab stands at Boston Logan Airport, which have signs posted and lots of state troopers watching -- it’s a pretty difficult rule to enforce, especially when it’s cold out.There should be no need for enforcement, people should be doing it because they understand that by idling, they both waste around 10-20% of the fuel and pollute the air.
I lived in Europe for several years and the people's mentality was such that they voluntarily shut their engines down after the fourth vehicle when sitting at a traffic light (and also, you were taught that when taking the mandatory driver lessons, and it was law as well). In fact, if one did not shut their engine off, everybody else would turn around and stare at the offender, until the offender got so uncomfortable from all the staring that they shut the engine off too. Those cases were far and few between though, as everybody understood that by shutting the engine off instead of idling helps having cleaner air and less pollution.
This country needs more environmental awareness education. A lot of it, too.
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