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Calm down, hypermile
Though "HyperMiling" might sound like some sort of land-speed record set by the Millennium Falcon, it's actually a proven technique for improving fuel economy. Holly Jennings investigates.
Posted February 09, 2012
With gas prices being what they are, empty-nester and retiree dreams of leisurely weekend excursions in the diesel pusher and college crowd right-of-passage road trips seem like a non-starter. Long drives hurt the wallet and don't do the environment and favors, either. However, there is an increasingly popular way to travel far and green while saving on both gas and environmental guilt. HyperMiling.

Now that Paul Britton's children are grown and gone, he and his wife enjoy taking road trips to popular theater destinations: Stratford and Niagara on the Lake in Ontario, Toronto, Lenox in Massachusetts, and New York City in, you know, New York. In order to maximize fuel economy, Britton has taken up the practice of "HyperMiling," the catchy, ironic term that describes a series of techniques to increase fuel economy through modified driving habits and proper car maintenance.

HyperMiling was coined as the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year for 2008.

Once dismissed as "just a fad," HyperMiling has become a bona fide way to be kinder to the environment while reducing dependence on fossil fuels - albeit minutely in the "think locally, act globally" way of things. As gas prices continue to beleaguer consumers, HyperMiling offers an alternative solution to those who enjoy long drives as much as they enjoy decreased gas consumption.

How effective is HyperMiling? Britton claims he can save 5-6 miles to the gallon by simply using his brakes and gas as little as possible. In mountainous regions throughout Pennsylvania on the way to New York City, he can save up to 8 miles per gallon of gasoline by simply coasting downhill - though the practice is various shades of illegal in most States and Provinces.

Britton drives a vehicle with a standard transmission, said to be superior for HyperMiling due to the ease of disengaging the engine simply by stepping on the clutch. Hypermilers of automatics will put the transmission in neutral. Both methods leave the engine running at idle and otherwise doing no work, which burns the least amount of fuel. Also with automatics, keep it in drive but laying off the gas pedal and allowing the vehicle to coast down hills still makes a big difference.

For Britton, HyperMiling is all about changing driving habits. Instead of approaching exits quickly only to then slam on the brakes one he's off the highway and on the ramp, he slows his car down gradually by removing his foot from the pedal.

For long stretches of flat highway, Britton employs cruise control as that mechanism is designed to apply the minimum amount of fuel needed to maintain a steady speed with inhuman precision.

Britton admits that his green driving techniques have bothered fellow drivers on occasion. After all, a coasting car will inevitably slow; intentionally slowing for a far-off exit despite the speedier flow of traffic can jam things up considerably.

Britton asserts that HyperMilers are victims of road rage as much as the elderly - or anyone driving slow in the fast lane. It can be argued that people prone to rage have only themselves to blame. But assuming that's the case, knowing that "rage happens" does leave the HyperMiler to shoulder some of the responsibility, as with shouting "fire" in a crowded movie house. After all, if a HyperMiler's positive gas/environment-saving efforts have the negative side effect of a 9-car pile-up behind, how is that saving money? How many gas guzzling emergency vehicles on the scene does it take to counter the penny saved?

To that end, a conscientious HyperMiler will know when the technique is counterproductive, when a penny saved is Mack truck climbing up the trunk.

Speaking of courting danger, there are HyperMilers who take their green driving methods to precarious extremes. "Drafting," for instance, or driving ridiculously close behind a large vehicle - a tractor-trailer rig, usually- to be pulled along by the low pressure air pocket in its wake, can surely save on gas. It's tailgating with benefits, in other words. However, as investigated by the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters, should the rig in front slam on its brakes with a drafter in tow, the drafter has only 1.25 seconds to respond - and to respond in the right way.

HyperMilers who tailgate put themselves and the people they tailgate in a precarious position. "Extreme" HyperMilers will not only draft in neutral, but turn off the engine completely. This, of course, makes it hard to steer or brake in a timely or effective manner - there's no power steering or brakes with the engine off. Putting fuel economy before safety might be an individual (and illegal) choice, but when you consider the potential for other drivers to be caught up in the imminent rear-ender, the practice seems downright irresponsible.

There is ample evidence, however, that socially responsible HyperMiling techniques are effective. Jack Martin, for example, winner of the 2008 Tour to the Shore fuel economy competition, achieved a record-breaking rate of 124 miles to one gallon of gasoline (1.9 L/100km) in his unmodified Honda Insight Hybrid - a vehicle otherwise highway rated at 44 mpg (5.35 L/100km).

Yet Martin magnanimously refers to Chicago's Wayne Gerdes as the unofficial "King of the Hypermilers." Gerdes reportedly drove 2,254 miles on a single, 13.7 US gallon tank of gas during a Honda Insight Marathon in Oklahoma, equating to 164.53 miles per gallon (1.7 L/100km).

Though taken to hyper-HyperMiling extremes, Martin and Gerdes employ the same strategies as everyone else in on the trend. To wit:

    1. Lay off the gas. Lower overall speeds combined with coasting where topography and traffic permit will burn less gas on every trip.

    2. Lay off the brakes. Counter-intuitive though it sounds, sometimes not braking will save gas. If you plan ahead and see there's a slow stretch or a stop coming up, ease off the gas and let your vehicle decelerate naturally by coasting. If you're going to slow or stop anyway, why hurry up and wait?

    3. Avoid go-stop driving. In stop-and-go traffic, easing off the gas in advance of an impending stop but not necessarily braking will often result in the stopped traffic starting to go by the time you catch up with it. Think rabbit and hare, where the hare naps at every red light.

    4. Use lightest grade engine oil allowed. Thinner oil requires less energy to push around, and more easily lubricates. Don't go below manufacturer's recommended oil weight, of course.

    5. Fill up those tires! Try to ride at the maximum recommended tire pressure. This will reduce "rolling resistance" and improve fuel economy. Don't overdo it, though - too much air will compromise traction and eventually ruin the tire.

    6. Get rid of extra cargo. The junk in the trunk weighs your car down, requiring more energy (from gas combustion) to propel it forward.

    7. Employ cruise control to avoid unnecessary accelerating. These days, computer controlled cruise is exquisitely precise. Let it do its thing, save money.

    8. Turn off or lower the air conditioner to increase gas mileage by up to 25 percent. AC draws its power from the engine (albeit indirectly). The less you use it, the less gas you'll burn. Pretty simple.

    9. Don't idle. Contrary to popular belief, turning your car off at a stop and then on again when it's time to go does not use more gas than just letting it idle (though it might have been true three decades ago). But today, if you're staying in one spot - a traffic jam, picking up the kids from school, a long red light, whatever - turn the car off.

    10. Roll up the windows. The curvaceous shape of your vehicle might emote various degrees of sexy, but it's also aerodynamic, made to cut through the air as effectively as practicality allows. Driving with your window(s) down messes that up, like a parachute.

But really, technique is only the half of it. There are a great many physical modifications you can do your vehicle to make it a better HyperMiling machine - "HyperMilification," to coin a phrase... but that's another story. Stay tuned.
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Calm down, hypermile

File Under:
Driving, Green, Automotive, HyperMiler
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