There are more than 210 million licensed drivers in the United States, and I’ll venture a guess that the vast majority of them fill their tanks with the old standby, 87 octane unleaded gasoline. What if they knew that, one day, they too might be using premium gas — 91 octane and higher — without paying a premium price?
All drivers should have access to high-octane fuels, because their attributes — enhanced fuel efficiency, reduced smog and greenhouse gas emissions — can help every American.
Wider availability of high-octane fuels might not be a (tail)pipe dream. Automakers are busy building the engines of the future, but the bargain-basement 87-octane fuel we’re all stuck with won’t cut it: Those high-tech engines need a higher octane rating to maximize efficiency and achieve those health and environmental benefits.
The future is coming along faster than any of us realizes: This year two federal agencies and the California Air Resources Board will kick-start the process of reviewing the CAFE standards, under which every vehicle sold in the U.S. must average 54.5 mpg by 2025.
“We’re beginning to realize that octane of the fuel is a key limitation on further increases in fuel economy to meet these requirements,” Ford engineer Tom Leone said during the National Ethanol Conference in New Orleans in February. The conference focused on the potential of high-octane fuels.
For vehicles not optimized to burn higher-octane fuel blends — that’s most of us — boosting the octane levels could produce a 2-5 percent increase in torque and power, Leone said. In vehicles for which the manufacturer specifically recommends premium fuel, the increase could be 10 percent or more.
Ethanol is a natural octane-booster, and if more of it were blended into the nation’s gasoline supply, 91 octane might become the standard. Then the undemocratic term “premium fuel” would disappear from the lexicon.
“We want to sell cars that everyone can afford, with technologies that improve fuel economy and CO2 for everyone,” Leone said. “And we can’t expect our customers to pay a premium price for that special fuel. So we’re really looking forward to a future where higher octane fuel is widely available, it becomes the new standard, it’s reasonably priced for everyone.”
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