Squeezing the most out of a gallon
As gas prices rise, clever drivers adopt new rules of the road.
With gas prices soaring above $4 a gallon, grousing at the fill-up station is rising fast, too. But instead of complaining, America‚Äôs leading ‚Äúhypermiler‚ÄĚ advises simply ‚Äúteaching your right foot‚ÄĚ to behave.
A former nuclear engineer, Wayne Gerdes is the nation‚Äôs foremost proponent of a radical shift in driving behavior away from the gun-it-and-go style to an approach he calls ‚Äúhypermiling‚ÄĚ aimed at saving fuel.
Once a voice in the wilderness, this hypermiling evangelist has recently found a receptive and apparently growing flock. To demonstrate his techniques, Mr. Gerdes recently drove 800 miles from Chicago to New York in a borrowed Toyota Prius hybrid burning just 8.9 gallons ‚Äď or 71 miles per gallon, far better than the car‚Äôs fuel-rating.
Still, it‚Äôs not a system just for long trips, nor is owning a hybrid required, he says. Even in his eight-year-old Honda Accord, Mr. Gerdes can squeeze out 59 miles to the gallon, double its fuel-economy rating.
Doing so, however, involves deploying many subtle, as well as common-sense, changes to driving habits. They range from timing traffic lights and gliding on through rather than stopping to filling tires to the maximum level listed on the tire instead of what‚Äôs inside the vehicle‚Äôs door. On subtler points, Gerdes is equally adamant: park on the highest points of mall parking lots to use gravity more ‚Äď nose out to avoid backing up.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre finally starting to see a lot more people moderating their driving and going a little slower ‚Äď and that‚Äôs nice,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúBut moderate isn‚Äôt enough when all this stuff is so easy. We can‚Äôt afford to ‚Äėjust drive‚Äô anymore. We have to use the tools we know.‚ÄĚ
Zen and the art of ‚Äėno brakes‚Äô
Jack-rabbit starts are obviously out, he says. So is heavy braking. His new mantra is ‚ÄúDWB,‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúDrive Without Brakes,‚ÄĚ which means driving almost as if you didn‚Äôt have them ‚Äď gliding to stops instead of accelerating to them. Using momentum to sling-shot a vehicle through turns instead of braking first, then accelerating. Changing to synthetic oil, taking heavy junk out of the car‚Äôs trunk, and minimizing the use of air conditioning ‚Äď which can cut mileage by 5 to 25 percent.
This last step may be hard for many. But it makes perfect sense to Gerdes, who began hypermiling as a patriotic gesture after 9/11 to help make the nation more energy secure. Even so, few were interested until gas prices climbed after hurricane Katrina.
Now with gas prices higher still, dollar-saving driving is the new incentive. To deal with that, 66 percent of Americans said they would change driving habits and 71 percent said they were thinking about buying a fuel-sipping vehicle, according to a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll.
Another sign is the growing attention to mileage achievement these past three years at the annual Hybridfest in Madison, Wis. At the festival‚Äôs ‚ÄúMPG Challenge,‚ÄĚ on a 30-mile course, William Kinney of Kennewick, Wash., drove his Honda Insight at 168 miles per gallon ‚Äď 223 percent over the EPA estimate of 52 m.p.g. for his vehicle to win the top division last year.
Still, it‚Äôs hard to say just how widely the hypermiling idea is catching on. Hits on Gerdes website cleanmpg.com have soared with increasing attention by the news media. And as gas prices have grown, so have discussion board tips on how to save gallons.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm just taking advantage of the hills and the back roads and all the great hypermile advice,‚ÄĚ says Laurie With, a business manager in St. Cloud, Minn. ‚ÄúPeople zoom up behind and flash their lights. But if I‚Äôm doing the speed limit, I have the right to do that without having someone say ‚Äėgo faster, go faster.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
Following Gerdes‚Äôs rules, she‚Äôs coaxed her 2005 Honda Civic far higher than its 41 miles per gallon rating to get more than 65 m.p.g. on her daily commute. She lightly accelerates down one hill, gliding up to the crest of the next. Driving ‚Äúwithout brakes‚ÄĚ and no more than the speed limit as well as inflating her tires to the maximum have all helped, she says.
So does having a gas-mileage gauge, which tracks miles per gallon in real time. While more vehicles today have them, one of the auto industry‚Äôs little secrets is that all cars sold since 1997 have the capability to use them. Gerdes recommends buying a ‚Äúscan gauge‚ÄĚ for about $150 as the fastest way to improve mileage through ‚Äúaccountability.‚ÄĚ
Tricked out dashboards
Al Walker, a Boston computer-security expert, has adopted the hypermiling way of life for his Prius hybrid. In addition to the car‚Äôs built-in fuel-economy indicator, Mr. Walker has bolted onto the dash a voltage meter, vacuum gauge, tachometer, and temperature readouts to help him tease more mileage out of his motor.
Like a few other hypermilers, Walker comprehends sophisticated techniques like ‚Äúpulse and glide‚ÄĚ that can utilize the engine‚Äôs torque curve to minimize engine thirst.
On a recent trip to New Jersey, Walker and his Prius achieved 72.5 miles per gallon ‚Äď and almost 60 miles per gallon on a short test trip with this reporter to display his hypermiling methods.
‚ÄúThis is the essence of good pulse and glide driving ‚Äď using the engine to accelerate, gently,‚ÄĚ he says, smiling and nodding at the gauges, ‚Äúbut not so gently that you‚Äôre running it inefficiently.‚ÄĚ
He follows the Gerdes hypermiler basics, too, which means highway travel mostly in the right lane at the low-end of the speed limit. For this he has another more low-tech approach ‚Äď a sign on his rear window advising bumper riders to ‚ÄúGo Around.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúOkay, that truck back there is getting a little impatient because I didn‚Äôt burn out [of that stop light] back there,‚ÄĚ he says, glancing at his vacuum gauge as a large SUV bears down. ‚ÄúI guess he‚Äôll just have to deal with it.‚ÄĚ
For more fuel-efficiency pointers, check out the Monitor's Horizon blog.