Jimmy Carter on the Autobahn

A decision by the German state of Bremen to install a speed limit on a portion of the famed Autobahn, has turned the spotlight on an international carbon emissions debate. It’s long been known that driving above the speed limit can decrease fuel efficiency—going 75 mph in a 60 mph zone can increase your fuel use by as much as 20 percent —but only now are we beginning to see a push in some areas to use lower speed limits to curb carbon emissions. Bremen, which is governed by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, adopted a speed limit of 120 kilometers per hour, which translates to about 75 mph.

The European Commission has been considering a continental speed limit that could drastically cut emissions from driving, especially on roads like the Autobahn, where many stretches of road have no speed limit whatsoever. Such a move would almost certainly spark an outcry in Germany, which is notorious for its fast roads and high performance vehicles.

In the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Nixon administration lowered the speed limit to 55 mph, a move that was very unpopular. Jimmy Carter’s plea for Americans to “obey the speed limits, and (set their) thermostats to save fuel,” in the famous nationally televised “malaise” speech, was met with similar derision. Whether the climate change crisis has motivated enough citizens to change their thinking on these issues remains to be seen, and will likely determine whether or not policies like the one instituted in Bremen find their way across the Atlantic.


  • uktiger
  • ex-EV1 driver

    I believe that the 55mph speed limit was passed during the Gerald Ford presidency, not Jimmy Carter.

  • Boom Boom

    EV1, you must read more closely. The article above says it correctly. Nixon was the president. On January 2, 1974, Nixon signed the 1974 Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act which lowered speeds to 55 mph. Ford extended it in 1975. Imagine two republican presidents signing something like that today….. (Carter just spoke in support of the law.)

    Driving 55 mph in a non-hybrid will get you about the same gas mileage (or better) as driving 80 mph in a hybrid version of the same car. Driving a hybrid at 55 mph will blow away the EPA numbers. (My hybrid civic gets 55-60 mpg at 55 mph.) The bigger the car, the bigger the savings. Trucks/SUVs will save even more gas.

    Plus, it saves lives. (And I’ve driven in Italy, they could use some slowing down on their highways… frickin’ nuts.)

    Only down side, it takes an extra hour to to drive every 180 miles.

  • AP

    It’s a stupid idea. When Nixon did this in the 1970′s, it was pure torture. America is too big to drive that slow. I’m all for saving fuel, but do it with aerodynamics.

    Instead of reducing the speed limit, raise fuel taxes. This will drive the purchase of more fuel-efficient cars, and people can make their trips the same as now with less fuel.

  • I can’t drive 55

    Gas taxes aren’t going to do it. Gas costs US $8+ per gallon in Germany, and while most people drive more fuel-efficent vehicles (eg not SUVs with the aerodynamics and weight of a railroad car), it’s apparently not an incentive to cut speeds more or less in half in order to save fuel.
    Simply put, my time (and everyone else’s) is worth more than I would save in gas by driving 55mph, especially since I probably waste 5x more gas sitting in traffic than I do when I’m on the highway.
    I would gladly pay a carbon offset for the privelige of doing 150mph on the highway, not because I like to go fast, but because I would rather significantly reduce my travel time. My hunch is that this is what Germans will end up doing to kowtow to the EU’s pressure regarding carbon emissions – further increase the cost of fuel to include some amount of carbon offsets.

    I would be interested to see a comparison between something like a Boeing MD80 traveling 500 miles with 75 passengers vs 75 passenger cars all traveling that same 500 miles at 55/80/120mph and see which actually generates more CO2. In some of the comparisons I could find, the car wins over some short distances. Factor in cost of time in an airport, and the idling/taxiing and other support services that contribute to the CO2 output of your average air travel, and I think we’re all focusing too much on cars.

  • sean

    An interesting debate.
    Aerodynamics helps but not much. Drag force is linear to Cd but to square of speed. So if you increase speed by 1.5 times, you’ll have to reduce Cd by 2.25 times to compensate that. How can you do it? Prius has reduced Cd from 0.32 for a normal car to 0.26, ie only 18.75%. How much more can you do for a PASSENGER car, not a Formula 1 car?
    I can see that they’re trying to cut down emissions by any way they can find. Speed limit is one of those. And I agree w/ Boom Boom, it saves lives.

  • Pablo

    The pick-up trucks, as least aerodynamic, should be limited to a lower speed.
    They have powerful engines allegedly to carry cargo, but their drivers drive them empty so they use this power for faster acceleration and higher speed, I would call this cultural expression. Have you driven behind one – what a smell.

  • Boom Boom

    I know that it takes more time to drive at 55 mph, but the bottom line is that the one thing we could do, OVERNIGHT, that would decrease fuel consumption by 20-30 or more percent would be to lower speed limits. Carbon off-sets might alleviate your guilt, but you’re still polluting. More aerodynamic cars wouldn’t save more than a couple of percent. Increasing gas prices will help, but folks will still drive as fast as they’re allowed to. Time is money, but by the same token, speed is deadly and pollutes. How much is that worth?

    I’m not exactly a proponent of lowering the speed limits, but we have to be honest about it. It is the single fastest and easiest way to boost our average fuel economy and reduce our fuel consumption.

  • sociopathicregret

    Boom Boom, your posts are terribly misguided. Reducing speed limits does not save lives; because speed itself doesn’t kill, and because people will disobey them anyway if they are unreasonable. The government has no right to FORCE us to consume less gas, either. And no way would it reduce consumption 20-30%; only 55% of oil in this country is used for transportation (or something like that), and much of it is done in city driving. At most, if EVERYONE obeyed it, it would save 5-10% TOPS. That won’t happen, so 2% seems more accurate.

    Sure, insane enforcement levels help curb this, but for what? Speeding doesn’t kill, morons driving fast kill. As long as you keep a safe following distance, use your turn signals properly, and keep right when you’re not passing, you will be driving safely. Of course, you also need to know the limits of your car and not take it too fast around turns.

    And don’t give me that reaction time BS, because everyone’s reaction time is different, and modern cars stop A LOT faster than the government’s pathetic ‘stopping times’. Saying that your reaction time is faster at lower speeds is just suggesting the limit be lowered to 0 because it doesn’t suggest anthing.

    Oh, and also, mileage depends on the car. I recall back in September, I got 34-35 mpg doing 82 mph on the freeway in my 06 civic coupe combined with quite some time in city traffic. Gas mileage depends on the gearing, RPM’s, and aerodynamics of the car. Not every car peaks at 60 mph.

    The environmental lobby in Germany neglects the fact that a speed limit would only net a 2% carbon savings for the entire country, all the while disrupting traffic, pissing people off, giving out unnecessary fines, etc.

    Want to ‘save gas’? Demand that the government ban corporations from holding electric car patents. Have them offer incentives to companies who wish to mass produce electric cars. It’s a small investment, but the benefits are ENORMOUS. The oil barons have for decades purposely ignored and postponed the technology until we’re desperate for an alternative so they can make big off high oil prices. And don’t give me that BS about electric cars hurting the power grid and still producing pollution either; even the Tesla roadster which is as fast as a Lamborghini Gallardo ( I believe now in limited production) can go 230 miles on $2.50 of electricity. Using oil to power a car wastes a lot more energy in transition and requires much more enery investment to extract, refine, transport, etc. Even if electric cars may technically use electricity from a polluting power plant the amount of CO2 comparatively released is probably less than 10%.

  • AlexBasilio

    Everyone is focusing on the cars trying to find a way of getting better mileage by reducing speed limits or building hybrids.
    The main problem is the lack of public transportation. I come from Spain, a country where it takes 2 hours to travel 400 miles on a high speed train. They are still working on it, but by the year 2012 they want to cut that time in half, having trains traveling at almost 400 miles per hour. People are now starting to travel by train instead of flying because you go faster on the train. Imagine having to be at the airport 1 hour early, hope for the flight to be on time and then arrive at your destination airport which is sometimes so far from the city center that it takes you an extra hour to get to your final destination. On the train, as long as you are there before they close the doors you are good to go. They are never delayed, and they arrive at the city center.

    Last time I went to L.A. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on my way back to Las Vegas. The line of cars on a Sunday afternoon went all the way from L.A. to Barstow, which is 115 miles away!!! Good thing I was driving on the other direction and there wasn’t any traffic.

    What I am trying to say with all this is: If you could travel on a train that doesn’t use gas at all, that would take you less than half the time, and that you know it’s impossible to get stuck in traffic, wouldn’t you rather do that?
    Instead of playing around with gas taxes and all that stuff, I think the government should invest in quality traveling.
    And if for whatever reason you still need a car at your destination you can always rent it.

    And about lowering the speed limit, technology nowadays improves so fast that lowering speed limits just doesn’t make any sense. We are doing the same speed limit today and 20 years ago. Nowadays cars have incredible gadgets to help you drive. The braking distance is not at all the same today and 20 years ago. Now we have traction control systems. Instead of drums we have ventilated powered braking discs, anti-blocking system, amazing tires that no longer explode like they used to do and even with some tires you can keep driving for a couple hundred miles at low speeds before getting your tire replaced.

    So what we need to do is to reinforce the basic driving rules like staying on the right lane unless you are overtaking, using your blinkers and do a speed according to your vehicle and it’s characteristics. If we all respected that there would be very little accidents. I can tell you that driving fast can be safe. I’ve driven on the Autobahn in Germany doing over 120 mph and it felt like doing 60. If you want to go slow you stick to the right lane and you leave the left lanes for Ferraris, Lamborghinis and everyone that wants to enjoy the pleasure of driving.

    Drive safe and promote public transportation!!

  • Boom Boom

    I agree with our Spanish friend. A bus full of people doing 90 mph saves more gas than 20 Priuses driving 55 mph and getting 55 mpg.

    Sociopath, what color is the sky in your world? You make some pretty impressive statements with no backing for any of them.

    Fact: Slowing down will save gas. It isn’t about a philosophical disagreement with government regulations. It is physics. Your jumps from 20% to 5-10% to 2% defies logic. 55% of 20% is 11% (using your numbers).

    Fact: Slowing down will save lives. Regardless of how impressive your brakes and reaction time are, the slower the traffic is moving, the safer it will be. Again, this isn’t philosophy, this is reality. You may feel that we shouldn’t, on principal, restrict drivers ability to drive how they want, but that doesn’t change the fact that if everybody drives slower, the highways are safer.

    And, yes, some cars will have peak gas mileage at above 55 mph. Some very aerodynamic cars might peak at 65 or 70 mph. These vehicles are typically sports cars and have high gear ratios (like a corvette). Every car’s gas mileage will decrease very rapidly above that. The fact that your civic got 35 mpg doing 80 only proves that the Civic is very efficient. You’d probably have gotten 40 mpg at 55 mph. (Indeed the EPA rating on your car is 36 mpg highway). The vast majority of cars are going to get peak gas mileage around 55 mph. The less aerodynamic a car (i.e. Suvs, trucks, etc.) the lower that peak speed will be. Not coincidentally, those vehicles also use more gas.

    And regarding electric cars, driving 80 in an electric car will waste energy in the same way that driving 80 in a ICE car will. That energy may ultimately come from a power plant, but electric cars will not solve the speed question.

    Again, I’m not a proponent of lower speed limits. I think there are other ways to reduce consumption, but I think we should look honestly at speed limits. They will lower consumption of gas. That is a fact. Whether this benefit is worth the cost, or whether there are better ways to reduce gas consumption, that is a whole other issue.

  • sociopathicregret

    Sure, if everyone theoretically went slower, it would be safer. If no one could go above 5 mph, there would probably be very few accidents. But it’s no one’s right to force individuals to go a certain speed and there’s no given blanket regulation that will satisfy everyone’s needs. There will always be fast and slower drivers, so slow drivers are supposed to keep right. Everyone just driving slow is not going to happen, period. The autobahn has lower fatality rates than US highways. There’s no speed limits there. Speed limits are not about safety.

    About my ‘jumps’ in percentage, I said only a portion of driving is done on expressways. Because this 55 mph limit of yours would only affect that, the percentage would be smaller. Then, given that no one would care about it, the real savings would be small, i.e. two percent.

    And actually, I haven’t gotten 40 mpg at 55 mph. I don’t know if that’s even the peak efficiency. And even I hypothetically could by gently cruising for hours, that would be a savings of only 5 mpg (13% or so) from dropping a whole TWENTY FIVE MILES AN HOUR. Given my city driving that day, the MPG was probably closer to 36, meaning a drop of only ten percent. Is gallon of gas or less really worth an extra hour of my time? Sure, my peak fuel efficiency isn’t 80, but it doesn’t get hurt much. RPM at 80-85 mph in the civic is still well under 3000, I get to about 2000 at maybe 63 mph. MPG mostly depends on how high your RPM’s are at a given speed, the engine (stuff like ivtec which saves fuel, or so I’ve heard), and the aerodynamics. My dad gets only very slightly less mpg at 75 mph than 60 in his prius, definitely not a 20% reduction. The drop off as you go higher in speed is most likely more gradual the more aerodynamic the car, so this won’t equate to a 20% loss. Isn’t the loss SUPPOSED to be 25% from 55 to 75? At most, the difference in my car and my dad’s car has been quite neglegible. I’ve heard of people going from 40 to 27 in an unaerodynamic early 00′s hyundai accent from 60 to 80 mph, so aerodynamics would seem to have an effect on the curve.

    I already stated why lower speed limits don’t work. They’re used as an abusive way to extract revenue from the public, and since only a part of driving is highway related and few will comply, the savings are neglegible. Ideally, the savings would be maybe 4%, since 20% supposed fuel savings and only 55% transportation use (11%), plus if you assumed half of fuel spent is spent on highways (6%), which I’m not sure is accurate, that cuts it further, finally adding in the reality that the savings is not equal for every car (4%). If you factor in the reality that probably 60% won’t change their speed and half of those who do will only slow down 10 mph, the savings will be 2% at best. I really don’t think it’s worth looking at at all when there are ways to make a HUGE dent in oil consumption without ripping people off.

  • Platymapus

    Carter is a retard.

  • Boom Boom

    Here are some actual numbers in actual studies. Not data about my daddy’s Prius or some guy I know who drives a Hyundai backed up by a bunch of numbers that I came up with out of thin air.

    http://www.greencarcongress.com/2007/05/ford_charts_imp.html

    http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/driveHabits.shtml
    (I know this is the government, and they’re all in some sort of conspiracy to collect money from Civic drivers through speeding tickets.. but there is it anyway.)

    http://www.hybridcars.com/gas-saving-tips/maximizing-mileage-toyota-prius.html
    And here is a link from this very website. Of course these guys don’t know that they’re talking about.. or why would you be reading their website… oh wait….

  • sociopathicregret

    I do know the ‘official’ positions, but they really don’t apply too much to the real world any more. The ‘transit van’ example they gave is EXTREMELY unaerodynamic so I wouldn’t really use it as a legitimate example of fuel efficiency in smaller cars. BTW, speed limits aren’t a conspiracy, it’s just a combination of cash strapped local/state government with ‘safety’ mongering.

    However, aggressive driving and tons of acceleration actually does lower your mileage substantially.

    About the prius thing, the statement about 1 mpg lost every mph over 50 is BS, and they even say so in effect themselves, saying you’ll only save 5 mpg if you slow down from 60-65. We get about 48-50 mpg driving fairly gently around 50 mph and 45-46 mpg around 75. That’s really not much difference.

  • Johnny

    I find that for every 10 mph increase in speed creates a 5 mpg drop if fuel milage in my Ford Focus. It is not as sleek as a Prius. My best mileage is at around 35 mph. The lowest speed I can shift into 5th without bogging down the engine. I have seen over 50 mpg going very slow out in the country testing mileage. The epa rating is 24 city and 35 highway. Driving the right way makes a huge difference in mileage along with slower speeds also. Hills also make a huge decrease in gas mileage going faster. A car uses a lot more energy going up a hill at a faster rate then at a slower rate. Try going up a hill fast on a bicycle.

    The only way a civic non-hybrid gets 35 mph at 82 mph is with a tail wind or dropping in elevation. I have seen a huge difference in mileage depending on what direction the wind is. Up to +- 10 mpg.

  • Anonymous

    Yea. Gas should be saved through aerodynamics instead of speed. Well, that is just my idea. That limit is just too slow for Auto Motto.

  • AGUK

    Well, there are some interesting points made here – and we in the UK have our fair share of speed freaks and SUV haters – and the same lame arguments about speed, taxes, gas prices etc.
    We pay approx £1/litre of fuel, so based on today’s exchange rate and conversion, that equates to approx. $5.27/Gal compared to a (Florida) average of $1.97/Gal.
    The UK has a higher number of cars that are capable of higher mpg than the US and also has a smaller legacy of older cars. Our SUV market is quite strong, but we have much smaller ones in comparison (on average, based on standard UK vehicle, not grey imports or specialist imports) and these will do in the region of 18-35 mpg. Our public transport infrastructure is appalling, unless you live in a major city, so cars are needed.
    In this current economic climate, most families do not have the financial ability to change their cars to something more environmentally aware – that is a car that is either a hybrid or pure electric, it costs too much money, when banks are unwilling to lend, it makes it almost impossible to move away from their old car.
    Also – across Europe, and in Scandinavia, you’ll find a lot of older cars on the roads, as people cannot afford to buy new ones. It’s also worth bearing in mind that cars now produce far less emissions than they did 10, or even 5 years ago – so while the mileage may not have reduced, the emissions per mile have.
    There is also the consideration of the cost of producing hybrid/electric cars against those with standard engines, and shipping of parts globally – whereas older cars often use donor parts from scrapped cars reducing the cost on the environment as new parts do not need to be made or shipped in planes – the same way the salad ingredients for the tree hugging environment chums get to their tables – by plane!
    When I was in the US last, I saw a bunch of TV ads about how amazing a new Chrysler or Chevy engine was as it was capable of 20mpg highway…..WOW!!! I get that in town.
    We are being held ransom by the oil companies – to the extent that our national leaders are happy to invade a country to get rid of it’s leader to protect oil supplies….

    If the money we paid in road and fuel taxes went on providing a more reliale, robust, and wider reaching public transport system so we can park and ride more – as an example, where I live, it’s 12 miles from where I work. By car it takes approx 15 mins, by public transport it would take me 75 mins, and even then I’d still have to walk about 1 mile after that to get to the office.

    Our alternatives are not available yet, so all the pressure these groups and website put on people driving certain vehicles, the higher costs of motoring from higher fuel costs and road taxes are only causing issues to motorists on lower incomes, as they need to decide between paying to drive (fuel, tax etc) or putting food on the table or paying the rent, they can’t do all three.

    Unless there is a viable alternative for all, these arguments are without a firm basis – we can argue all day about mileage, gas use, prices, speed limits and ‘poor’ vehicle choices, and yes, in some cases, I do question why people NEED a huge SUV or pickup, that is never used to tow, and never goes offroad, but that’s that person’s choice – but it won’t stop them driving, it won’t get people to dump their oil burning cars and buy shiney new hybrids – we can’t afford it yet, we can’t afford in terms of cost and time to use a public transport infrastructure that is inadequate for a high percentage of the population.

    I drive a 4×4! It’s an Audi A6 Allroad, but it’s still a 4×4 – does that make me a bad person? I use it every day, for work, for pleasure (dog agility, photography, shopping and vacations) and I won’t sell it to by a hybrid car, as there are none that I like the look of or would work for my lifestyle – it’s my car, my choice and I would use a train to travel to cities instead of a plane – but I still need to drive to the station in the first place.

    As I said, until an alternative that we can all use is made available, then these arguments are a waste of time – use your typing skills to propose that your government ploughs money into alternative transport across the country, not just in cities, then when people have an option, they’ll use it.