Most Americans believe they are good drivers--if not "excellent" ones, as Dustin Hoffman's Charlie Babbitt claimed to be in Rain Man. But they're wrong. Whether changing lanes without turn signals or texting behind the wheel, most drivers I see around me are awful. So, I assume most of them haven't a clue about not wasting gas.
Sure, Babbitt's father's Buick Roadmaster wasn't sipping gas, but even Rain Man and his brother could get better mileage if only they were "excellent" drivers. Drivers can increase fuel economy on every car and truck out there by adopting simple changes in driving habits. Yet most people don't bother to do so. Perhaps the savings in fuel and vehicle wear and tear is too theoretical.
To compare bad and good practices--and see for myself the real-world results--I recently drove a minivan up and down the East Coast. Toyota provided a 2011 Sienna Limited AWD for our travels from Pennsylvania to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where our family gathers annually. (Watch for my Behind the Wheel review of the Sienna later this week.)
The trip south would give a base measurement before returning and adapting the techniques we missed in order to improve our fuel economy.
On the southbound trip through five states, the poor driving habits of the other drivers became quite annoying. We were trying to use as little gas as possible, while the people around us were needlessly burning petroleum. One particular driver was not only buying her own Valdez tanker, she was encouraging me to buy my own.
This driver--we'll call her Ms. Lexus RX450h--shadowed me for about half an hour through Delaware. On the upside, Ms. RX450h was saving fuel by driving the hybrid SUV. On the downside, she thought she was Shirley Muldowney. At each red light, Ms. RX450h would mash the gas pedal and accelerate up to 50 or so.
In this part of Delaware, we hit a series of lights where every other one was red. It's just the way we roll at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday. Thinking as an optimist, half of the lights were green, right?
Ms. RX450h was drawing me into her web of misdeeds, however. Pulling away from our Toyota Sienna loaded with kids eager to get on the beach, the one-passenger SUV lured me to go faster.
With every fiber of my being, I fought that urge and was rewarded by catching up to her light after light. Karma was on my side, but I can only hope she noticed how little she gained by racing... and how much fuel she was wasting.
Thanks to her jackrabbit ways, her virtually empty hybrid was probably getting about the same actual fuel economy as our minivan, its five riders, assorted boogie boards, sand castle-making paraphernalia, and all the other necessities for an enjoyable week at the beach.
Now, I consider myself an "excellent" driver. Yes, many of those poor drivers we see every day think the same thing, and I have little to defend my claim other than my own words. Ms. RX450h and Mr. '96 Taurus (who crossed three lanes to make the exit in front of me) and Mr. Ram 1500 (who blocked two lanes of traffic trying to make a left lane exit from the right lane) definitely rank behind me somewhere.
Driving more safely and more courteously are topics for another article. For today, let's waste less gas. The rules to better fuel economy are simple:
Even the Shell Answer Man wants you to maintain your vehicle, granted because you'll theoretically come to a service station to do much of it. His monetary reasons aside, it's a great idea. Keep the car in proper tune by following regular schedules for tune-ups and oil changes. A clean engine runs more efficiently than a dirty one. But you knew that because you're an "excellent driver" as well. Your tires are inflated to proper levels, right?
Unless you're Ms. RX450h, you know slow and smooth acceleration trumps quarter-mile races for fuel efficiency. Sadly, her competitive nature is contagious. I'm sure my speed increased in her presence. She did beat me to every light, and yet we usually caught up to her at the next red light. Her wasted fuel did little to lessen the time she was on the road.
Pre-Plan Your Route
Another one of Ms. RX450h's missteps was not choosing the most direct route. As we played bumper tag, she turned right and left the main drag. Assuming she was running a local errand, I figured I was rid of her. Lo and behold, 10 minutes later she pulled up alongside us at another red light. While she could have stopped somewhere, it seemed unlikely she would have caught up with us so soon had that been the case. If she had remained on our road, she should have been a few miles further ahead, thus wasting fewer miles and probably a couple of bucks of gas--not to mention a few minutes of her life, the most precious resource of all.
Keep Your Speed in Check
As vehicle speed increases, the aerodynamic resistance works harder to slow the car. All those forces rob a vehicle's efficiency; doubling a vehicle's speed increases the power need eightfold. Balancing the need to get to your destination as quickly as possible with the legal speed limit helps you find a sweet spot on your speedometer. After picking a speed, stick with it by using a steady right foot or, better yet, cruise control. If you need to get there at a particular time, leave earlier and slow down.
Using my usual methodology of driving, our trip south returned reasonable fuel economy: Despite the heavy load, the minivan turned in a respectable 20.9 m.p.g. on mostly highway use. Having driven this route in a number of vehicles, I can say the fuel usage was about average. For the return trip, we looked to improve that number.
Since Toyota had provided an excellently maintained vehicle, nothing physical needed adjusting. My driving style is fairly smooth, the itch to mimic poor drivers aside. And our route was exactly the same so we could measure other changes in my driving style. It all came down to speed.
Reducing the vehicle's speed by just a few miles per hour cost us very little. In this particular trip, we used about a tank and a half and added about 45 minutes of road time. Aside from a few drivers who found our rate of speed too slow, nobody was significantly bothered by our changes.
We did, however, gain one big bonus that didn't become evident until we were home. By using the cruise control as much as possible and taking a few miles per hour from our velocity, our fuel economy improved to 24.7 m.p.g. That's a gain of 18 percent!
We bested the EPA's estimate by 2 m.p.g. simply by slowing down--although I should note that at no time were we a burden to traffic by driving 50 in a 65 m.p.h. zone.
Yes, three-quarters of an hour is significant, but when measured over an entire daylong trip, it can get overlooked.
On the other hand, nearly $10 in saved gas is quite significant. Taken over time, numbers like that can really add up.
Sure, we are all excellent drivers. It's just that some of us are more excellent than others. And the majority of us ignore the most basic rules of the road. We tailgate and we speed and we ignore our mirrors and we fail to use turn signals.
As we learned in our Toyota Sienna, reduced wear-and-tear on your vehicle--and on your wallet and bank account--can be had by following a few common-sense rules.