Reader Question: Non-Electric Car Range?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Brian asks: Do you have any idea why most modern vehicles tend to have a range of about 400 miles on a full tank of fuel?

Across my ownership of multiple vehicles, almost all cars in the past 30 years are designed with a fuel tank capacity that allows for a highway range of around 350-450 miles, give or take. The only vehicles that seem to buck this trend are diesel vehicles, especially diesel versions of gasoline-powered vehicles such as heavy duty pickups or the now-murdered VW/Audi TDI cars and SUVs.

I do, and have done, quite a lot of interstate, long haul driving. I regularly drain two full tanks or more in a single day/night. I used to have a VW Touareg TDI with a range of over 700 miles and I enjoyed the power as well as the range it offered in comfort. I have an F-350 diesel currently that can get mid-600 mile ranges all day long on a tank. But my Jeep Wrangler Rubicon can barely get 350 miles, usually less and my Lexus ES 350 can’t do much better despite being a full-sized car.

It seems obvious that the designers design around this target range.

One practical concern, besides one’s own bladder size, is emergency/evacuation. Witness Hurricane Ida and the lack of electricity in much of Louisiana that followed. No electricity means no gas stations working which means no gas. You had to drive a fairly long distance to find electricity and even if you did, the gas stations would likely be out of fuel, forcing even further travel. Having lived on the Gulf coast for a few years in the past, a common practice is to never let your tank go below 1/2, especially during hurricane season, in case evacuation was necessary and the gas stations were out of fuel. It’s not safe to carry full fuel cans in the trunk of your car or back of your SUV in case of spillage/wreck.

Incidentally, imagine driving a Tesla in that area without electricity! Now one suspicion I have moving forward is that as the pressure to reduce driving increases (e.g., higher fuel taxes, per-mile driving taxes, etc.), long range will not be as big a selling point. This will make the range-limited EVs be at much less of a disadvantage, their biggest disadvantage currently, compared to gas/diesel vehicles, including hybrids. If you make fuel unreasonably expensive and you increase the difficulty of traveling more than 200 miles in a single day by car, you gain more control over people’s movements.  It’s a lot harder to vote with your feet when your shoelaces are tied. It’s also a lot easier to control movement when you control the electricity flowing through their houses’ smart meters. You get a mileage limit per day with penalties for exceeding that limit, all under the excuse of “reducing carbon emissions.” If you don’t comply, you’re killing someone’s grandmother or something. We already know that per-mile monitoring, taxes, etc. is being pushed by the Biden administration.

Having the capability to travel more than 500 miles on a tank of fuel may, oddly, become a form of rebellion.

My reply: The main reason most cars have relatively short ranges on the highway is because they have relatively small gas tanks, especially relative to the car. As an example, a current V8-powered performance car like the Mustang GT  only has a 16 gallon fuel tank. My ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am has an appropriate 21.5 gallon tank. Now, granted, my TA’s mileage was poorer than that of the current GT – but not by that much. And if the new GT had a 21.5 gallon tank, it would be capable of traveling 500-plus miles on the highway.

So why are the gas tanks of modern cars smaller, as a rule?

It’s another hidden cost of government regulations. Once again, a cost of this “save you money on gas” business. The government decrees all cars shall average say 35.5 MPG by 2025. The easiest way to get there is to shave weight off the car. One way to do that is to install a smaller (and plastic rather than steel) fuel tank. 15 gallons of gas weighs considerably less than 21.5 gallons and this confers a slight fuel efficiency benefit – paradoxically, at the expense of range.

Cars are also, in general, smaller than they used to be and thus there is less room for a large gas tank. There is also the issue of “safety” regulations, which constrain where the tank may be located, which restricts the size.

If I lived in a Hurricane-prone area, as you do, I would probably do as you advise and try to always keep my car’s tank at least a third to half full – which is sound policy regardless in a modern car as modern cars have their fuel pumps in the tank and the gas serves to cool them. If you run the tank to near-empty regularly, the pump will run hotter and require replacement, sooner.

I would also keep a couple of five gallon jugs on hand at home at all times, so as to have gas on hand, at all times. If the power goes out, you’ll still be able to go. Perhaps not 500 miles, but probably far enough to get away from the danger zone and to a place that has more gas.

Your observation as regards reducing range as a “selling” feature in the future is interesting – and I think, probably accurate. Technically speaking, it is absolutely possible to adjust an electric car’s range remotely, regardless of its state of charge. Because electric cars are also connected cars, electronically controlled – and not by the putative “owner.”

More about this, soon!

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in! Or email me at [email protected] if the @!** “ask Eric” button doesn’t work!

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  1. A Nissan Altima I rented once a couple years ago has over 600 miles on a single tank (it had a range meter which was nice). Even with the V6 gas engine it still could do it. Pretty good for a non diesel car. My current car has a last 50 miles of gas left meter which is nice, so i can run it down to less if i want to hold off on buying gas (like today which is Labor day).

    The car companies themselves could help put an end to this electric car nonsense by simply building cars with the right sized tanks. Its telling they they don’t. At this point it’s hard to imagine how to get them to want to serve their customers vs serving government drones. I don’t see it happening outside of not buying anything. In some ways we are shooting ourselves in the foot by buying the remaining vehicles (like pickup trucks) that we want. If we could cut them from the profits of the big pickups and SUV’s it would cut off the money that is going to vehicles that nobody really wants. Of course that may not work either since the government will just give them more of our tax dollars to fund the stuff they want.


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