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posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2007

The most enjoyable and interesting thing I’ve read in a week has to be this article about Wayne Gerdes (via bb). Gerdes is a hypermiler — a person who drives in an obsessive fashion in order to increase his vehicle’s fuel efficiency — and strikes me as someone that Errol Morris would be quite interested in doing a short documentary about. He’s refined his driving technique over the years to wring 59 MPG out of a plain Honda Accord and clocked over 180 MPG with a hybrid Honda Insight. Here’s a taste of how he drives:

“Buckle up tight, because this is the death turn,” says Wayne. Death turn? We’re moving at 50 mph. Wayne turns off the engine. He’s bearing down on the exit, and as he turns the wheel sharply to the right, the tires squeal-which is what happens when you take a 25 mph turn going 50. Cathy, Terry’s wife, who is sitting next to me in the backseat, grabs my leg. I grab the door handle. As we come out of the 270-degree turn, Cathy says, “I hope you have upholstery cleaner.”

We glide for over a mile with the engine off, past a gas station, right at a green light, through another green light — Wayne is always timing his speed to land green lights — and around a mall, using momentum in a way that would have made Isaac Newton proud. “Are we going to attempt that at home?” Cathy asks Terry, a talkative man who has been stone silent since Wayne executed the death turn in his car. “Not in this lifetime,” he shoots back.

At PopTech last year, Alex Steffen of WorldChanging told the crowd that cars with realtime mileage displays get better gas mileage. Turns out that’s how Gerdes got really interested in hypermiling:

But it was driving his wife’s Acura MDX that moved Wayne up to the next rung of hypermiler driving. That’s because the SUV came with a fuel consumption display (FCD), which shows mpg in real time. As he drove, he began to see how little things — slight movements of his foot, accelerations up hills, even a cold day — influenced his fuel efficiency. He learned to wring as many as 638 miles from a single 19-gallon tank in the MDX; he rarely gets less than 30 mpg when he drives it. “Most people get 18 in them,” he says. The FCD changed the driving game for Wayne. “It’s a running joke,” he says, “but instead of a fuel consumption display, a lot of us call them ‘game gauges’” — a reference to the running score posted on video games — “because we’re trying to beat our last score — our miles per gallon.”

If people could see how much fuel they guzzled while driving, Wayne believes they’d quickly learn to drive more efficiently. “If the EPA would mandate FCDs in every car, this country would save 20 percent on fuel overnight,” he says. “They’re not expensive for the manufacturers to put in — 10 to 20 bucks — and it would save more fuel than all the laws passed in the last 25 years. All from a simple display.”

Competition, even with yourself, can be a powerful motivator. I’m not convinced, however, that FCDs would improve gas mileage across the board. There are other games you can play with the display — the how-much-gas-can-I-waste game or the how-close-can-I-get-to-18-MPG game — that don’t have much to do with conserving fuel consumption. Still, next time I’m in a car with a mileage display, I’ll be trying out some of Gerdes less intensive driving techniques, including the ones he shares on this Sierra Club podcast (Gerdes’ interview is about 2/3 of the way through).

Reader comments

adbmiceMar 06, 2007 at 10:25AM

Fascinating. Has Gerdes ever gotten in trouble for driving the way he does, i.e., speeding, taking exits too quickly? And if he did get in trouble with the police, couldn’t he argue that he’s helping the environment?

“Competition, even with yourself, can be a powerful motivator.” made me think of this: http://www.cabel.name/2006/08/multiplayer-game-of-year.html

megnutMar 06, 2007 at 10:58AM

Still, next time I’m in a car with a mileage display, I’ll be trying out some of Gerdes less intensive driving techniques.

I hope I’m not in it with you!

aleshMar 06, 2007 at 11:00AM

I read that article last night, equally fascinated. Driving to work this morning I found myself applying lite versions of some of his techniques. I don’t have an FCD display, but I sure wish they did, and I’m convinced he’s right that they would reduce fuel consumption. There are other games you can play, but the ‘how much milage can I get’ game would seem by far the most interesting. Prius owners famously attest to that.

The one thing the article glossed over is that you annoy the crap out of other drivers, esp. on 2-lane roads where passing is difficult. Great article nonetheless.

DeanMar 06, 2007 at 11:09AM

I don’t want to be anywhere near this unsafe driver! I’m all for increased mileage per gallon but not at the expense of safety and other drivers…

LeahMar 06, 2007 at 11:27AM

I found that the easiest way for me to increase my mpg is to simply watch the tachometer. My highest mpg every was 45 in a Toyota Corolla. More important than keeping an even speed is keeping an even tach, so I let my momentum take me up hills (even tho the speed decreases), and I gain speed on the other side.

Using those techniques, I drove my Corolla across the country, fulled loaded and towing a small uhaul trailer, and I still got 28 mpg. Much better savings than renting a truck or van to carry the same stuff.

John WesleyMar 06, 2007 at 11:29AM

This guy sounds interesting. I’d like to have one of those gauges to see how my owns gas mileage fluctuates. He’s right about making it a game, I might as well try to have some fun on the way to work, though traffic probably makes saving gas a lot harder.

StephenMar 06, 2007 at 11:46AM

Now just imagine how much gas would be saved if people didn’t drive but instead walked the two blocks to the 7-11 for nachos & fried dough, or bought a bicycle to commute to work one day a week, or rode the bus downtown rather than trying your patience through hellish downtown traffic. Cars are designed to be driven in a particular way; fix that rather than make yourself a threat to society by your driving.

Those counters you can wear that tell you how many calories you’re burning while exercising didn’t exactly spur a huge fitness revolution, and neither would (another) government mandate that we can all safely ignore.

minxljMar 06, 2007 at 11:46AM

yeah, turning the engine off at 50mph is going to be high on driving safety advice, isn’t it? In the UK it’s illegal to ‘coast’ i.e. drive down a hill with the gear in neutral as you’re ‘not in full control of the vehicle’. I would assume this is the same for the USA.

You have no control over the vehicle with the engine off, and although I’m sure the guy will make sure he’s doing it in a safe manner, other people copying him might not. Not entirely great advice if you ask me.

My fiance and I have a 2006 Honda Accord (UK version - diesel) which gets 45mpg on average, but it’s always interesting to see how this fluctuates. City driving uses up so much more than motorway/freeway driving it’s unbelievable.

MichelleMar 06, 2007 at 11:52AM

Ugh, this guy’s a maniac. As a Prius driver, I’ve wondered a lot whether there is any statistical correlation between driving a hybrid (or possibly any car with an FCD) and safer driving. I know that I’m a safer driver in my Prius, because I can see in realtime what jackrabbit starts from a red light or 85MPH does to my mileage. On particularly unscenic and lengthy drives, I engage in elaborate fantasies about collecting such stats and then lobbying the car insurance industry to bring down rates for hybrid drivers.

Wayne Gerdes just killed my dream.

Let it be said for the record that most mileage-conscious drivers are rather more interested in our own personal longevity and that of the drivers around us than Mr. Gerdes seems to be. All things in moderation, etc.

Nick DouglasMar 06, 2007 at 11:54AM

My dad always played mild versions of this, and I learned it from him, but the most common tactic — just laying off the brakes — not only saved gas but also smoothed out my driving. It’s amazing how many frustrating moments we can drop by timing ourselves to just slow down naturally instead of braking.

Adam RiceMar 06, 2007 at 11:58AM

I wonder how much gas this guy has burned refining his high-mileage driving techniques.

jkottkeMar 06, 2007 at 12:20PM

Those counters you can wear that tell you how many calories you’re burning while exercising didn’t exactly spur a huge fitness revolution

I would argue that we are in the midst of a huge fitness revolution. It’s not evenly distributed across the population, but it’s there. The calorie counters on the fitness machines at the gym and the calorie counting cards of Weight Watchers have spurred people into action. And Nike+ is making good progress in attempting to make fitness running a competitive endeavor. But people have to want to use these things. Cars are something that most people use anyway and adding a mileage meter seems to want to make people drive more fuel efficiently.

Also, on the unsafe driving concerns, if you listen to the podcast, Gerdes cautions against using his techniques (he might have even said “do not try this at home”) and offers safe techniques that people can use without taking curves at unsafe speeds or tailgating.

Eric ByersMar 06, 2007 at 12:27PM

The worst part is that when your car off, things like your brake booster, power steering, etc all cease to function. Plus hypermilers are constantly “drafting” semi’s and other large vehicles in order to gain their high mpg marks. It’s just plain dangerous.

EugeneMar 06, 2007 at 12:34PM

Even with the safety of yourself and others as your top concern, driving is still by far the most dangerous thing we do every day. This guy placing fuel efficiency and saving a $ above both of these as a priority, and risking the safety of other drivers and pedestrians in the process, is flat out stupid (25mph/270 degree turn at 50??).

As for the environmental justification mentioned in the comments, how about taking the bus?

DKRMar 06, 2007 at 1:43PM

Are there any “I [heart] hypermiling” bumper stickers available yet? Judging by the way these people drive, I’d be surprised if anybody could see them in the first place. Perhaps there’s no room for those in the market.

Mike CohenMar 06, 2007 at 1:47PM

One thing I learned since I got my Prius is that short trips are extremely inefficient. On the fuel consumption graph, I see that I get not much more than 25 MPG for the first 5 minutes, around 50 the next 5 minutes, and then stabilizing between 60 & 75 MPG. Since I take lots of short trips, my gas mileage is far from optimal.

Tony StewartMar 06, 2007 at 3:33PM

Mike, just tailgate/draft every car, roll through stop signs, and try to never use the breaks on these short trips and maybe you can bump it up to 30 MPGs on the shorties…


paulMar 06, 2007 at 4:00PM

If you could program in a dollar amount from your last fill-up, I expect people would drive more conservatively, but not like this guy.

A lot of unsafe stuff, even if it’s the service of a laudable goal.

Apropos of that, my local NPR affiliate had a piece on hybrids, with some guests from GM, a journalist/skeptic, and a serious hybrid enthusiast/zealot. It will be interesting to see what’s available in the next 5 years. I think the simple hybrid that offers full electric power with plugin capability and a small internal combustion powerplant to charge the batteries when you exceed the cruising range offers a lot of promise. Assume that most of that driving will be out of cities where the air is less likely to be polluted anyway, and that the plant (could be natural gas, gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel) runs very clean as well as being very small, and it could be a real contender.

All were in agreement — well, the GM guy didn’t weigh in that I could hear — that increased CAFE standards were a must, and there was even a call for an EU-style petroleum tax: can you see gas at $5/gallon, when it’s cheap?

DaveMar 06, 2007 at 5:42PM

Ok, so this guy is a bit of a nutcase in the extent to which he’s taking this whole thing. But that said, I can vouche for the claim that FCDs do influence driving style. Since purchasing my Insight, my own driving style has changed considerably - for the better, I might add. And I attribute it entirely to the FCD.

Prior to having the FCD, I thought of fuel efficiency primarily as mechanical and aerodynamic design issues. Of course I knew that driving style influences mileage, but without the FCD, it was pretty difficult to know just how much. So I never really worried about it. I’d test the average mileage when I filled up the tank, but that was only once every week or two. Driving styles and conditions are difficult or impossible to maintain during that length of time, so trying to correlate mileage and behavior seemed fairly meaningless.

The beauty of the FCD is that the feedback is instantaneous, so the driver can see exactly much specific actions affect mileage. For example, we all know that driving slower saves gas. But now I can say that dropping from 75mph to 65mph increases my fuel efficiency from 58mpg to 72mpg. That’s a big difference. I can see how taking the flat route home over the hilly route home increases mileage another 5-6 mpg. Sure, I can race up a hills, take flying starts off red lights, pass everyone in front of me, etc., but the car’s constantly telling me what the penalty is. As a result, I’ve gone from being a left lane 95mph driver to a right lane 65mph driver. And a lot of that has to do with getting into the whole “high score” mindset the hypermiler describer. (In fact, that was the same analogy I often use.)

Since getting my car, I’ve thought FCDs should be mandatory in all new cars. It’s good to hear someone else saying the same thing.

EricMar 06, 2007 at 10:03PM

Want to encourage the game of “best MPG” over the game of “most burned”? Fit these FCDs with a top ten hi score system, just like pinball machines pioneered back in the day.

paul merrillMar 07, 2007 at 3:39AM

I’ve done that stuff for years.

One consideration is ultimate environmental impact - like in replacing a starter, if it gets worn out much sooner, due to excessive starting.

And there is a study that shows the ultimate environmental impact of hybrids is worse than regular cars! It was in the December issue of the UK publication, “Car”.

Used Priuses are making their way here to Africa (cast-offs from Japan). When the batteries die, I guarantee they will not be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way!

Christopher WalkerMar 07, 2007 at 4:08AM

Interesting that someone should make the link to treating life as a videogame. I worked for a while in electrical retail as a sales assistant. It was a mind-numbingly dull job but our computers gave us access to a wealth of sales statistics - number of sales, total sales, percentage of sales to include an add-on, percentage of sales to include the warranty option, and so on and so forth.

The only thing to get me through each day and each week was to treat the whole ordeal as a game; subsequently, I became one of the more successful sales assistants in the store (but partly because nobody else could be arsed to work), without being pushy or lying about things, simply because I wanted to beat the score I got last time. I wouldn’t say it was fun exactly, but it was a lot better than it could have been.

paul merrillMar 07, 2007 at 5:53AM

ps That means here (batteries being disposed of improperly).

And I wish I could provide a link to the article from “Car”.

pss I dream of owning a Prius!

shelley NobleMar 07, 2007 at 11:13AM

Great, now on top of drunkards and druggies and cell users and other drivers putting us at great risk, now I’ve got this type of blockhead to worry about. This is insane. The point of driving should be safety self and others on the road, for God’s sake.

I don’t need this guy or anyone else turning my life into a video game to appease their ocd. Sheesh.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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