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This is an age old debate that i have with a coterie of friends; without backing up with much scientific fact. It's all recently been based on arguments of experience.

Is it possible that utilizing the air conditioning in the car has a greater impact on fuel consumption/efficiency over having the window rolled down in a car?

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Which make and model and year of car are you wondering about? Each vehicle is designed differently (and are efficient in different ways), which I suspect may be a significant factor. – Randolf Richardson Aug 9 '11 at 1:59
@ Randolph, Older cars in the 70's used about 15 horsepower to rotate a compressor at full head pressure, modern ones are down to 3-5hp. So yes, it depends on a few factors. – Moab Aug 25 '11 at 1:17
up vote 40 down vote accepted

Mythbusters visited this topic in both episode 22 and episode 38:

Episide 22


Tests were performed under varying conditions (55 mph versus 45 mph). The 55 mph test used a computer to estimate fuel efficiency based on air intake, not actual fuel consumption, and showed A/C was more efficient. The 45 mph test consisted of running the tank until it was empty, and showed open windows were more efficient.

  • Because the original tests were inconclusive, this "urban puzzle" was revisited in episode 38: It is more fuel efficient to use air conditioning when the car is traveling approximately 50mph or more. Otherwise, windows are more fuel efficient.

Episode 38


The fundamental flaw in the MythBusters’ test was that the point where the drag becomes powerful enough to inhibit a car’s performance with windows down was inside their 45 – 55mph margin at 50mph. Going less than 50mph it is more efficient to leave your windows down, but going greater than 50mph it is more efficient to use your A/C.

In comments Lagerbaer suggested that this

Makes sense from a physical point of view: A/C fuel consumption impact should be independent of actual velocity, whereas the drag effect of an open window will grow with the velocity (friction forces in general scale at least linearly with velocity)

While Michael Edenfield suggested the excellent point that

Since the physics concepts involved are the same for all cars, I suspect that more rigorous experiments would produce a different "cut-off point" than 50mph, but the answer to the OP's question is still "AC is better over x mph, worse under x mph". –

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Thanks mark that's what i was really looking for. – chrisjlee Aug 12 '11 at 15:50
I would note that this is not exactly a rigorous experiment. A high-quality experiment would require many car models with many different AC settings, and combinations of open windows. – user664939 Aug 15 '11 at 16:35
@user664939 - Agreed, and if you know of a rigorous, comprehensive, scientific study, please feel free to post an answer here and I will happily up-vote it. *8') – Mark Booth Aug 15 '11 at 16:47
@user664939 Since the physics concepts involved are the same for all cars, I suspect that more rigorous experiments would produce a different "cut-off point" than 50mph, but the answer to the OP's question is still "AC is better over x mph, worse under x mph". – KutuluMike Aug 8 '12 at 14:58
50 mph = 80 km/h – nic Jun 4 '15 at 4:51

Mythbusters episode 22 tried this one, and they claimed it was busted.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

Well, what they found was that at high speed, AC is more efficient, but at low speed, opening the windows is. Makes sense, because air resistance increases rapidly with speed. Anyway, +1. – Ben Crowell Aug 9 '11 at 2:30
@geoffc - Can you provide details of the linked episode. We want people to be able to read the answers here in case referenced sites are taken down. – xiaohouzi79 Aug 9 '11 at 2:49
I'm trying to find the information again, but a few months ago I ran across what appeared to be a pretty good study on it. The results were similar in that windows open was best at low speed and A/C best at faster speeds. However, I seem to recall that the breakpoints were pretty high compared to what one would expect (75-90mph depending on the vehicle, and they had tested several). – Brian Knoblauch Aug 9 '11 at 18:19
Can you find a better source than mythbusters? – Sklivvz Jun 16 at 6:40

Air conditioning in cars uses the same amount of horsepower regardless of speed. The compressor in the average car is 12000 btu which uses approx. 4.7HP. The engines output varies on rpm. When traveling at lower city speeds your compressor uses a greater percentage of available HP. At highway speeds the engine produces considerably more power and the percentage used is much lower and as a result better fuel economy. Modern automotive A/C units do not run continuously but cycle on and off based on the system pressure requirements.

Having the windows at any speed will present aerodynamic drag. The rear window acts like a parachute and the effect is more pronounced when speed is increased.

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The central argument of this answer is theoretical in nature. We do not allow answers based uniquely on common sense or pure logic. Answers which are wholly based on a theoretical model are generally downvoted and may be deleted. See FAQ: What are theoretical answers?

What difference does 'percentage' make? Surely the absolute value is more relevant? – Oddthinking Jun 16 at 7:24
Welcome to Skeptics! This is an answer based purely on a theoretical model. We expect answers to be based on empirical evidence rather than speculative predictions. Please edit it to add references to empirical data. – Oddthinking Jun 16 at 7:57

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