Gas Usage in a Survival Situation

Last week my parents decided to get rid of their old-fashioned 35″ HDTV CRT (non-flat screen) in favor of a larger flat screen they can wall mount.  We got the call that if I was willing to drive up to Nebraska for it, it was ours.  Woe is the day when a cutting-edge web developer like me is accepting technology hand-me-downs from his parents.  I drove the Mustang, which was kind of stupid for how big the TV actually is.  I literally had to unbolt the passenger seat to fit the TV in the back, then rebolt the seat for the trip back down to Kansas City.

On the trip back, I decided to make the most of the 180 miles by doing some “survival” driving.  Lately, I’ve gotten better and better at asking “what if?” in any given situation, like so:

  • What if my car broke down somewhere remote?  What could I use from the car itself to aid in survival?
  • What if someone tries to break into my car and steal the TV while I’m in the coffee shop?  What reflective surfaces can I use to keep the car in sight?
  • What if disaster struck, and we had a long way to drive with no guarantees we’d be able to refuel along the way?  How would we stretch our fuel usage?

I previously tackled part of this problem in my post about long term gasoline storage, where I recommend keeping your vehicles’ gas tanks topped off so you always have gas to siphon when needed.  But what about conserving gas as you’re using it?  This brings me back to that 180 mile drive.  I decided to see just how much I could improve my mileage if I was creative about it.

I decided to go as close to 60mph as possible the whole drive down, with a couple exceptions.  First, never drive more than 5mph under the speed limit unless I’m behind a slower car so it’s “their fault”.  Second, I would attempt to politely tailgate a semi whenever possible, and I’d be willing to go as fast as 70mph if it meant keeping up.

Drafting behind a semi requires a lot of concentration, and tact.  You don’t want to piss off the truck driver by tailgating, and you don’t want to get so far back that you’re not getting any benefit.  Let’s just say, on this particular day, I had more concentration than tact.  The first truck I drafted, I tried to stay out of site by trailing close enough that he couldn’t see me through the side view mirrors.  It’s not that hard, because there’s a long blind spot behind large trucks.

Sadly, around every curve I was out of the blind spot, and the driver got pissed.  I didn’t realize this at first, but he was bothered enough to take an offramp, and immediately get back on the interstate just to lose me.   Of course, he caught up to me right away because I had to slow down (no drafting).  This time, I just let him drive by, and didn’t tail him.  I’d obviously pissed him off, and that wasn’t my intention.

My next attempt, I stayed back a little further.  I figured some drafting benefit is better than none, and a happy trucker is better than one that wants to run me over.  This went better.  I didn’t have driver issues.

I’d topped off my tank right before the drive, so when I got into town I found a gas station and topped off my tank again.  Doing the math between the number of gallons I’d pumped and the trip odometer, I was able to figure out that I’d gotten 37mpg!  That’s insane in any Mustang, even my 6-cylinder.  My normal interstate mileage is 27mpg.  That was a 37% improvement using slower driving and drafting, and I even had a 200 pound TV in the back seat.

Especially after doing it myself, I do NOT recommend tailgating a trucker.  Not all of those guys would be as nice as my angry trucker was.  I could have gotten beat up at a rest stop, or possibly even pulled over if he’d radio’d a state trooper.  But I think you still get a good benefit from finding a slower-driving semi truck and following as close as safety and courtesy allow.

Our van gets about 25 mpg on the interstate, and has a 25 gallon tank.  That means normally, we’d have a range of about 600 miles.  If survival driving can increase that by 10%, and we have just 10 extra gallons that we siphoned from the Mustang, the family van would have a range of over 1,000 miles.  I’m sure we’d be more weighed down with supplies as well, but it’s still promising.

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