The Global View

How to lose 55 BILLION gallons of gas? Blame friction

Friction is a fickle friend for motorists. On the one hand, you wouldn’t want to find yourself without it while barreling down the highway at 75 mph and suddenly needing to apply the brakes. On the other hand, it could be costing you up to $20 on every $60 you spend at the pump.

Friction loss accounts for one-third of a car’s fuel consumption, according to a new joint study from the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland and the US-based Argonne National Laboratory. Worldwide, that means we wasted 208,000 million liters (around 55 billion gallons) of fuel because of friction, and that’s in 2009 alone.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that new technology can help overcome those friction losses by anywhere from 10 to 80 percent for different components in a car.

That means it should be possible, by tackling friction alone, to cut a vehicle’s fuel consumption and emissions by 18 percent in the next five to 10 years, the study’s authors say. Over the next 15 to 25 years, friction-focused innovations could boost mileage and cut emissions by up to 61 percent.

So where are all those friction losses taking place? The researchers says 35 percent is spent in overcoming rolling resistance in the wheels and 35 percent is in the engine, with another 15 percent each occurring in the gearbox and in braking. All of these conspire to produce the result that only 21.5 percent of the energy contained in your car’s gas tank actually goes toward moving your car. The rest is pure waste.

By putting in place the best technology fixes available today in all the world’s cars, the study concludes, we could save $444 billion a year in fuel costs.