Reduce Speed to Increase Fuel Economy

Transportation vehicles such as ships and cars are most fuel efficient when driven within a specific range of speeds. Significant fuel efficiency gains can be made if the speeds of these vehicles are restricted to those around which their efficiency is greatest. The energy efficiency gains found through speed-restriction measures are considered ‘low hanging fruit’ because these measures do not require additional technological development to be implemented. If policy changes in the transportation sector requiring speed reduction were adopted, they could very quickly prompt a significant reduction in fuel usage.

In an effort to reduce the fuel consumption of its vessels, Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, has implemented a policy reducing the maximum cruising speed of its fleet by 50%. This means that its ships cruise at 12 knots, instead of the typical 24 knots, in order to maximize engine efficiency. This speed-reduction policy was originally implemented in response to the high oil prices during 2008 in order to save money on fuel. According to a recent article in the New York Times, lower speeds have accounted for a 30% increase in the fuel economy of Maersk ships.

In addition to saving money on fuel, the speed-reducing policy also has environmental benefits. By reducing the amount of fuel burned, the amount of air pollutants, such as C  released to the atmosphere also is reduced.

Despite the money saved on fuel and the environmental advantages of this speed-reducing policy, some argue that this is a bad business move which will alienate customers whose lead-times will increase due to the longer transportation times and who will consequently be forced to increase their inventories. In a fast-paced global economy, where goods need to move quickly from Asia to Europe and North America by ship, it is unlikely that Maersk’s customers would be willing to stomach an increase in lead times without seeing some of the economic benefit of reduced fuel costs. In order to address this need, the New York Times states that Maersk is considering introducing variable rates, depending on the speed of delivery.

The ability of policies, such as the one implemented at Maersk to reduce fuel consumption and air emissions, has prompted some to suggest that similar measures should be taken to reduce fuel consumption in automobiles by reducing speed limits on the highways. According to a US DOE site providing tips on how to drive more efficiently, most vehicles reach their optimal fuel economy at speeds below 60 mph. After 60 mph, each extra 5 mph that is driven utilizes more gas, costing an equivalent gasoline price increase of approximately $0.24 per gallon. The DOE estimates that by observing the speed limit, vehicles could see an increase of 7-23% of their fuel economy, depending on the type of vehicle driven.

However, despite the economic and environmental benefits of lowering the maximum speeds of automobiles, it is unlikely that such a policy would be effective, at least from a historical perspective. From 1974-1987 a National Maximum Speed Law was in place which prohibited speed limits above 55 mph. However, this law was widely ignored due to conflicting views on the state level and failed to significantly reduce fuel consumption.

Nonetheless, programs which educate drivers about the economic and environmental benefits of driving at a reduced speed to maximize engine efficiency might successfully and significantly reduce the amount of fuel consumed in transportation. Additionally, efforts to expand the policies begun by Maersk in other areas of the transportation energy sector should be encouraged.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Reduce Speed to Increase Fuel Economy

  1. smb227

    It is interesting that you picked this topic topic to discuss. I actually took a course in thermal-fluids that discussed a point at which, or a speed at which, it becomes more fuel efficient to drive a vehicle. There is also one interesting thing to consider to improve the fuel efficiency of the vehicle, and that is running the air conditioner versus rolling down the window for cooling. From an aerodynamic stand-point, the drag on a vehicle increases greatly at high speeds when the windows are rolled down. At a certain point, the energy required to overcome this drag force to maintain a particular speed, say 65mph, is greater than the energy required to run the air conditioner with the windows rolled up. This is especially interesting since we live in Texas and endure hot summers… For more, information on this topic, visit

    http://www.bankrate.com/finance/auto/will-rolling-down-windows-save-fuel-or-not.aspx

    I also like how you addressed the business aspect of shipping and lead times versus the environmental impact. Consumers in this era tend to be very impatient when it comes to receiving what they need. Furthermore, from a large scale business aspect, sometimes it is imperative to receive packages as soon as possible, especially in manufacturing. I worked at Toyota Motor Manufacturing a few years ago, and remember that often times shipments would have to be expedited in the event of “short ships” or other unforseen issues. In this instance, if there were Federal Regulations in place that limited the speed at which shipments could be received, it would have very negative economic impacts on certain companies.

    Finally, the issue of limiting the speed limit. In theory this seems like a good idea: there are environmental benefits, fuel efficiency benefits, and the number of accidents would decrease. However, I feel like this would be almost pointless because, even if many states enforced this, many people would still disregard these speed regulations. However, during this period, it seems that the number of fatalities. For more, please visit:

    http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/National-Maximum-Speed-Law

    That would indicate that enough people would follow it to produce this statistic. However, this would also affect people like me, who drive long distances like from San Antonio to Austin and back frequently. With this law in place, it would take me probably 30 minutes longer to make this trip. I do feel like this would be advantageous for police departments since, with this law in place, more people would speed, which would allow more state revenue to be generated.

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