Squeezing the most out of a gallon

As gas prices rise, clever drivers adopt new rules of the road.

Mark Clayton
Easy driving: Al ‘Hobbit’ Walker employs special techniques to increase fuel economy in his Toyota Prius. The hybrid usually gets 40 m.p.g.; Mr. Walker can push 60.

With gas prices soaring above $4 a gallon, grousing at the fill-up station is rising fast, too. But instead of complaining, America’s leading “hypermiler” advises simply “teaching your right foot” to behave.

A former nuclear engineer, Wayne Gerdes is the nation’s foremost proponent of a radical shift in driving behavior away from the gun-it-and-go style to an approach he calls “hypermiling” 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 – or 71 miles per gallon, far better than the car’s fuel-rating.

Still, it’s 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’s inside the vehicle’s door. On subtler points, Gerdes is equally adamant: park on the highest points of mall parking lots to use gravity more – nose out to avoid backing up.

“We’re finally starting to see a lot more people moderating their driving and going a little slower – and that’s nice,” he says. “But moderate isn’t enough when all this stuff is so easy. We can’t afford to ‘just drive’ anymore. We have to use the tools we know.”

Zen and the art of ‘no brakes’
Jack-rabbit starts are obviously out, he says. So is heavy braking. His new mantra is “DWB,” or “Drive Without Brakes,” which means driving almost as if you didn’t have them – 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’s trunk, and minimizing the use of air conditioning – 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’s “MPG Challenge,” on a 30-mile course, William Kinney of Kennewick, Wash., drove his Honda Insight at 168 miles per gallon – 223 percent over the EPA estimate of 52 m.p.g. for his vehicle to win the top division last year.

Still, it’s hard to say just how widely the hypermiling idea is catching on. Hits on Gerdes website 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.

“I’m just taking advantage of the hills and the back roads and all the great hypermile advice,” says Laurie With, a business manager in St. Cloud, Minn. “People zoom up behind and flash their lights. But if I’m doing the speed limit, I have the right to do that without having someone say ‘go faster, go faster.’ ”

Following Gerdes’s rules, she’s 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 “without brakes” 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’s little secrets is that all cars sold since 1997 have the capability to use them. Gerdes recommends buying a “scan gauge” for about $150 as the fastest way to improve mileage through “accountability.”

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’s 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 “pulse and glide” that can utilize the engine’s torque curve to minimize engine thirst.

On a recent trip to New Jersey, Walker and his Prius achieved 72.5 miles per gallon – and almost 60 miles per gallon on a short test trip with this reporter to display his hypermiling methods.

“This is the essence of good pulse and glide driving – using the engine to accelerate, gently,” he says, smiling and nodding at the gauges, “but not so gently that you’re running it inefficiently.”

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 – a sign on his rear window advising bumper riders to “Go Around.”

“Okay, that truck back there is getting a little impatient because I didn’t burn out [of that stop light] back there,” he says, glancing at his vacuum gauge as a large SUV bears down. “I guess he’ll just have to deal with it.”

For more fuel-efficiency pointers, check out the Monitor's Horizon blog.

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