Natural living

Can’t afford a hybrid? Try hypermiling

The September 2008 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine featured an article on hypermiling, a practice of using deliberate driving techniques in order to maximize a vehicle’s fuel economy. Many of the methods described in the article seemed fairly intuitive, and yet I realized — even in today’s climate of record-high gas prices — that I wasn’t practicing any of them. Like many drivers, I was lamenting the rising cost of gas without even considering how my driving habits were directly affecting my own fuel consumption. I hadn’t even heard of hypermiling before, so I did a little investigating: Turns out, the concept has been around for a while. Wayne Gerdes, who is widely regarded as the pioneer of hypermiling, began implementing deliberate driving techniques after 9/11 in an effort to protest US dependency on foreign oil. In the ensuing years, he has refined the practice and gained a small but ever-increasing following. Gerdes has reportedly increased the fuel efficiency of his Honda Accord to 60 MPG — twice the advertised rate. According to a CNNmoney.com article from May 2006, you can improve your current vehicle’s gas mileage by 35 percent by using deliberate driving techniques. Not only does this allow you to save gas — thereby reducing your fuel expenditure and carbon footprint simultaneously — but it can make you a safer, more aware driver.

Some more advanced hypermiling techniques are considered dangerous or even illegal. In June of this year, CNN correspondent Miles O’Brien received a hypermiling lesson from Gerdes, who is shown push-starting his car and taking turns at high speeds. Hypermiling.com labeled the segment a mockery because it demonstrated more dangerous techniques such as killing the engine while coasting and drafting behind big trucks. I didn’t find O’Brien contemptuous at all — in fact, he declared himself convinced of hypermiling’s legitimacy — but the video did sensationalize the concept a bit by primarily showing advanced techniques. CNN might have shed a better light on the practice by focusing on safer, more easily attainable tactics.

Hypermiling isn’t hard, but it does require putting a little more thought into your driving than you may be used to. The basic principles are simple: accelerate slowly and smoothly, minimize breaking, coast when possible, and use cruise control on the highway. Most of us are probably aware that driving slowly consumes less fuel. So do accelerating more gradually and breaking slowly. Gerdes states that forethought is key; he is always thinking two or three stoplights ahead. As I started paying more attention to my driving habits, I began to wonder: How many of us have gotten behind the wheel of a car and started to drive almost on autopilot — maybe even arriving at our destination without much recollection of how we got there? Hypermiling forces you to focus more on the process, making you more aware of other cars and potential obstacles.

As someone who frequently curses other drivers for going too slow in the passing lane, I have a hard time remembering to go slowly. It’s difficult to get used to being the person that other cars are impatiently passing. But I’ve started coasting more and taking my foot off the accelerator as soon as I see a red light or stop sign ahead of me. I’m frequently amused to see other drivers accelerate to get around me, even though we may be 200 feet from a red light. When I roll to a stop behind them, I have to smile. They haven’t gotten any further than I have, but they’ve used more gas getting there.

After driving more mindfully for just over a week, I can’t say with any certainty that my gas mileage has increased. One of the foundations of hypermiling is knowing your gas mileage, so that’s something I’ll have to start monitoring. But I can definitely say that it looks like the needle on my gas gauge is falling more slowly. And I’ve noticed that when I’m not impatiently switching lanes and getting annoyed with slower drivers, when I pay more attention to the way I drive and think ahead, I feel calmer and more prepared to react. Hypermiling is something that takes constant diligence. Whenever I let my concentration slip or feel rushed, I start pushing down on the gas pedal and impatiently changing lanes. But I’m becoming accustomed to observing my fuel gauge more closely, and I often remind myself to stick to the speed limit. It might take me a little longer to get where I’m going, but I’ll arrive a little calmer, feeling good knowing that I am being proactive to reduce my fuel consumption. And since buying a hybrid isn’t currently in my budget, I’m doing everything I can with the resources available to me now. Just don’t expect to see me push-starting my car anytime soon.

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