It’s Not About Saving Gas

Honestly, the last thing I had in mind was fuel economy when I bought it.

Ride or fly, y'all.

The little scooter was sitting in my friend’s garage (actually her dad’s garage). He really didn’t use it as evidenced by the flat tires and slightly gummy carburetor. But other than that it was in great shape. And it had a vivid history, having spent time in the mountains of Pennsylvania and at The University of Illinois. I came back the next weekend with my pickup truck to tote it home after paying a very fair price for it (in New Jersey owning a pickup truck often left me the recipient of questions like “Are you a farmer?”. Somehow this ignorance never crossed their mind when later they needed help moving their furniture 1/2 a block to their “new” off-campus house).

After a few weeks of tinkering, I eventually sent it to a local shop and let them re-jet the carb…I know my mechanical limits. It then ran beautifully and I set about zipping around town and going from stoplight to stoplight with a ridiculous smile on my face. There’s something about a tiny engine running wide open that’s inherently safe, enjoyable and confusing to police. I got pulled over in New Brunswick (everyone does no matter what you drive, just give it time) for trying to “evade”. I explained to him that when the idiot on the cellphone cut in front of me without looking, I flipped my signal on and made a turn down a sidestreet rather than deal with the building traffic (and idiots) on Easton Ave. “Besides officer, two things are very important. First I didn’t know you were behind me and second, you could outrun this thing on foot.” This sparked a very relaxed conversation between the officers and I, who had suddenly became very interested in displacement (70cc), top speed (41.003mph, downhill with arms and legs tucked in) and mileage (between 50 and 90mpg  depending on rider weight, terrain and cruise speeds).

Ah the mileage, which is the crux of this article. Everyone is talking about being green and saving the world. Let’s get something straight: We humans may destroy ourselves or pollute the earth so bad that we have to move to Alpha Centauri, but the planet itself and a good portion of the critters that live here will be fine (I suspect that even after some weird catastrophe and humans become extinct, rats and roaches will look at each other and say “Where did everyone go? Who’s gonna leave us piles of garbage to eat?”). We can’t burn enough hydrocarbons to “destroy” the world. No doubt we can make it an unpopular place to live, but our planet has a way of recovering from disasters that far exceeds what we can do. So buying all kinds of green technology should really be a two pronged exercise: Saving money, and peace of mind knowing that you weren’t the person who burned that last ounce of oil that sent us into a Mad Max future. Oh and so you get over yourself quickly, your hybrid is not completely new technology and it won’t save us from ourselves. But it will save you money if you keep it long enough.

Side note #1: Hybrids are not new, only the name and application is. Just as “toilet paper” became “bathroom tissue”, someone simply changed the name of something that was already in existence to make it purty sounding (That’s cool since I do the same thing myself. When I ignore people, I call it “selective information acquisition”). The first hybrids in widespread use were and still are known as diesel locomotives. Yes those
DGNO Yard
dirty, disgusting, smoky, loud, blow-your-horn-at-3am-just-because-you’re-awake-and-want-to-rub-it-in locomotives are the grandfathers of the current hybrid movement. By the mid 1920s they were already coming into widespread use in the United States. By the 1960s they had almost completely eliminated steam power on railroads. Diesel electric locomotives today are very efficient when considering the amount of weight being carried. The major factor that makes them on the whole more efficient (percentage wise) than hybrid cars is that they don’t have to stop at traffic lights and once on a mainline, do not slow down nearly as much as cars do. There’s also the whole economy of size thing but that’s going too deep into another topic.
 

Likewise the quest to save oil, aside from being a political football that gets punted back and forth by congressmen, pundits and newsmodels, is just as much an economic problem as it is an ecological one. Personally, I know that the dinosaurs who died 65 million years ago at the violent edge of the K-T Boundary knew that humans were going to have internal combustion engines. That’s why every dinosaur made sure to collapse near a pile of rocks so that within a few million years, their remains would be well on their way to becoming 10w30. So we owe it to the dinosaurs to use their remains in the way that they wanted. After all, imagine how excited a Tyrannosaur would be to rip around at Mach 1.2 in an F-16 fighter jet, or go 200mph out of Turn 3 at Talladega. He’d probably forget to eat you.

Part of me pines for the days when buying gasoline was an exercise in where I wanted to go, not how much I wanted to spend. I’m relatively smart so I know that once prices go up on a commodity, they don’t go down drastically unless there is another commodity that can take the place of the first. Since nobody is mining for dilithium crystals or refining unobtainum into a synthetic fuel, my option if I want to keep driving unfettered by price fluctuations is to reduce my consumption.

Side note #2: A word about gas prices. I don’t care that companies want to make a profit (they technically don’t have to but that’s another article). Go for it and make yourselves rich. Fill the jacuzzis in the trunks of your limos with Playboy bunnies and peeled grapes. I just ask one thing of you: Freakin’ pick a price and stick with it!

Remember when anything over $1.55 a gallon was overpriced? Sigh, now I look fondly upon thee, $2.59.

Seriously this up and down every week with gas prices is the stupidest thing since…well since a long time. It did not suddenly get harder to drill a hole into the earth between Sunday and Tuesday so don’t treat us like idiots. No supertanker sank after hitting a reef and there is no way that a snowstorm in Indonesia is going to affect the price of a barrel of crude. Again we are not idiots. If you want to charge $2.90, or $3.50, or even $4.25 per gallon, go ahead. But fix the price so we can plan our budgets accordingly. Hell people are going to get stuck on vacation with the current system. Family drives to Florida at $2.98 a gallon and a week later it’s at $4.03. They’ll have to get jobs in Tampa just to be able to afford fuel to go home.

My pickup gets very good mileage considering its an evil old vehicle (1995) and its an evil gas guzzling monster (actually a straight-6 engine but thank you). It has a truck chassis and a truck body so combined with my bed cover, it’s getting between 20 and 25mpg on the highway. Speed is a huge factor since drag increases exponentially with higher velocities. Even headwinds can reduce my mileage, which is why I buddy up with tractor-trailers and draft a safe distance behind them. You can note the difference for your own vehicle by maintaining a constant speed, or using cruise control and watching the tachometer drop from its non-drafting level when you slide behind a big-rig.

But in town, traffic lights with their attendant constant braking and accelerating eat into my truck’s efficiency. I try to practice energy management, which is quite simply the act of reducing speed early when faced with a red light so that you increase the time it takes to arrive at said light. If done properly and the light isn’t obscenely long, you’ll be able to pass through without stopping. Unfortunately, there’s always an idiot who has to get on your six, become annoyed and whip around at relativistic velocities. Apparently they believe that by travelling near the speed of light, they’ll be able to blueshift the light away from red into green. Whatever lets you sleep at night, Asimov.

A little scooter flitting to and fro isn’t using much fuel in the first place so stopping for lights is not going to affect your wallet much. Plus it’s a heck of a lot of fun. There are two main downsides to riding it though. First is that weather is a problem. If it’s cold or rainy or snowy, it ceases to be enjoyable and rapidly approaches the région dangereuse. The second downside is that it is imperative to drive for other people because an accident on a tiny scooter can be a major monkey wrench in your future plans.

So here I’ve found a way to skirt the big bad oil companies, reduce my dependence on my big bad pickup truck, and have big clean fun doing it. I hate to be “that guy” but I do enjoy rolling up next to a large SUV at a gas station and putting in $1.47 to top off the tank (it’s only a 1 gallon tank). Of course this worked better in New Jersey where citizens were not trusted to pump their own gas through fears that every fill-up would result in a Zoolander/Wham gasoline fight explosion. Handing the attendant a bunch of quarters and zipping off definitely drew the envy of the poor guy who just dumped $83.09 into his tank.

But like anything it’s a tradeoff, which is why I didn’t get rid of my beloved truck. I can’t carry a second person because I’m too large. I can’t take it out in all types of weather as mentioned before. I sure can’t carry anything that won’t fit in my bookbag (or now my tote basket, jury-rigged to facilitate bringing back Sonic Rt44 slushes). And if there is an accident, I have very little protection other than to sense it coming, jump off the bike and Chuck Norris my foot through the offending driver’s windshield.

Now for the burning question: Chris, is a scooter right for me?

I don’t know to be honest. They are a hoot, they do get great mileage, you can race them in residential areas without even breaking the speed limit and people can’t help but to stare, smile and wave…in that order. If you live someplace where it rains a lot, you may have to put on grippy tires and wear an all-weather suit. Same goes for cold areas.

The answer is to go out and try one. New scooters are fully automatic (mine is semi automatic, the clutch is in the shifter so the left hand has nothing to do but hold on) and easy to ride. Most states dictate that anything over 50cc has to be registered either as a moped, scooter or a motorcycle. I don’t know so that’s something you should find out for your own state. Insurance is super inexpensive and it’s almost impossible to get a ticket unless you run a red light, pop a wheelie in a schoolzone or decide to Keith Moon through the window of your city hall.

Make sure to toot if you see me scoot!

Taken at the blistering speed of 14mph.

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About Christopher Williams

It's easier to lie about being boring than it is to be honest about being extraordinary.
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