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  • Eco-driving 101

    Posted on August 2nd, 2008 ninarussin

    New program shows drivers how to optimize fuel economy.
    By Nina Russin

    Thirty years ago, Congress lowered the speed limit on interstates in an effort to make drivers slow down and save gas. It was an abysmal failure.

    Instructors monitor fuel economy at an eco-driving clinic in Phoenix, Arizona

    Instructors monitor fuel economy at an eco-driving clinic in Phoenix, Arizona

    Today automotive manufacturers are trying a different tactic, with more promising results. Eco-driving is an initiative that helps car owners improve gas mileage on their existing vehicles. But it’s not just about slowing down.

    Increasing their situational awareness enables drivers to anticipate patterns in traffic congestion, stoplights, and terrain, in order to move more smoothly. Riding the “green wave,” as eco- driving advocates call it, saves time, and yields significant fuel economy gains.

    The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which sponsors the Eco-driving initiative, is a consortium of automakers representing eighty percent of the world’s manufacturing power. Their idea is to educate American drivers about practices already popular in Europe, in order to save consumers money, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

    Ford Motor Company, an alliance member, recently sponsored a series of eco-driving classes in Phoenix, Arizona, to see if an American program could produce fuel economy gains similar to Europe.

    “American drivers use 150 billion gallons of gas annually,” said Curt Magleby, director of state relations for Ford Motor Company. Two hundred thirty million vehicles on the road today need to be optimized in terms of driving behavior.”

    German prototype

    Ten years ago, the German road safety council approached Ford about putting together an eco-driving curriculum. In Europe, gasoline has traditionally been more expensive than it is here in the states, hence the proliferation of smaller cars in that market.

    Eco-driving became an integral part of driver’s license training in Germany: the program was so popular that the UK and other European nations followed suit.

    When the price of fuel peaked at over $4 per gallon this past summer, it made sense to bring a similar program to America.

    Finding an audience stateside

    “When gas hit four dollars per gallon, people became concerned about the financial impact,” said Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “We saw the largest decrease in vehicle miles traveled in history… People had to conserve.”

    McCurdy explained that eco-driving is a complimentary initiative to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007: legislation mandating a forty percent increase in federal fuel economy standards and thirty percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over the coming decades.

    By getting high-profile politicians such as governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and governor Bill Ritter of Colorado on board, the Alliance can integrate eco-driving instruction into existing driver’s education programs.

    Eco-driving principles

    Eco-driving is one part maintenance, one part vehicle options, and one part driver behavior. Routine maintenance procedures such as tire pressure checks, tune-ups, air filter and oil changes keep vehicles running at maximum efficiency.

    New car buyers can opt for convenience features, such as navigation systems and satellite radio with traffic updates, to help them find the quickest, least congested routes to their destinations. Existing car owners can tap into aftermarket GPS products that offer similar benefits.

    Putting it all together

    The best way to learn how to put eco-driving skills into practice is to get behind the wheel with an instructor riding shotgun: something I had the opportunity to do at the recent Ford program in Phoenix, Arizona.

    Ford brought eco-driving instructors from Germany to work with instructors at Phoenix-based ProFormance Group. For the media program, journalists chose from a group of Ford vehicles on hand, driving two, six-mile loops. For the first loop, we maintained our normal driving habits. Then ProFormance instructors showed us how eco-driving could improve average fuel economy, with minimal impact on trip time.

    “Eco-driving isn’t hyper-miling,” explained Curt Magelby. “Hyper-miling is fuel economy above all else… Drivers going way below the speed limit and taking other measures to save gas. It can be dangerous, and we want people to be safe.”

    I chose to drive a Ford Focus: a small sedan with EPA fuel economy ratings of 24 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. Our six mile loop was divided equally between city streets in suburban Phoenix, and a three-mile stretch of the Interstate 10 freeway.

    Knowing the objective was a slight disadvantage, since I modified my behavior on the first loop in favor of fuel economy. By avoiding jackrabbit starts and keeping my overall speed down, I averaged 26.3 miles-per-gallon on the loop.

    The second time around, my driving instructor had me put some eco-driving tips into practice: the most important of which is to keep the engine revving below 2000 rpm. By feathering the throttle, I was able to accelerate to normal driving speeds while improving my average fuel economy.

    Driving instructors recommend that drivers take well-known routes, so that they are more familiar with traffic light timing and terrain. Driving at a speed that allows the driver to pass through a series of green lights saves on gas wasted by repeated stops and starts.

    By accelerating slightly on downhills, drivers can reduce the amount of acceleration and fuel wasted on uphill grades. This should be second nature to anyone who runs or cycles long distances: conserving energy allows the body to go further.

    When cornering, try to take a path that minimizes the amount of braking. Typically, this means apexing early to create a wide, smooth arc through the corner.

    If there are multiple lanes, try to be the first car in line at the stop sign or traffic light. This eliminates multiple starts and stops as drivers up ahead move through the intersection.

    Avoid the outside lanes on roads with lots of feeder streets, since drivers entering the road from either side can interrupt traffic.

    Cutting off the engine at a long traffic light saves significant amounts of fuel. Before doing so, shift into a neutral gear and apply the brakes. Keeping the ignition to the “on” (but not engine running) position allows air conditioning and other accessories to keep running.

    Using cruise control helped me to achieve my greatest fuel economy gains. This is something that most drivers won’t be able to do in thick traffic, unless they have adaptive radar-based systems. But it’s fairly easy to do in lighter traffic, even in urban areas.

    On the second loop, I had improved my overall fuel economy to 28.2 miles-per-gallon, and finished the distance eleven seconds faster.

    Focus group

    My results weren’t as dramatic as a random group of consumers Ford brought in for the same program. Ford solicited drivers on Craig’s list. Respondents thought they were being brought in to evaluate new Ford product.

    Out of over a hundred respondents, Ford chose forty eight car owners: they divided the owners into groups of twelve drivers, who underwent three hours of instruction.

    Because the drivers didn’t know the purpose of the program going into it, their average fuel economy ratings on the first loop were poorer. The drivers had three loops of eco-driving to try to improve their fuel economy. On average, drivers improved their gas mileage by twenty-four percent: a figure comparable to similar groups in Europe.

    Ford estimates that eco-driving could save up to 22 billion gallons of gas annually, based on a fifteen percent improvement in overall fuel economy.


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