Take a spin with John Flory on a glorious summer day and you'll notice a certain focus from the Yale lab supervisor. He ignores the Connecticut countryside and sprawling homes, eyes fixed on the road and his miles per gallon gauge. "Going downhill is kinda like road candy," he smiles. "Here's some free miles per gallon for you."
Flory is among the growing numbers of "hypermilers" -- drivers obsessed with tire pressure and wind drag, controlled starts and rolling stops. He does his best to time green lights and only uses his air conditioner while coasting downhill. He shuts off the engine at stop lights and only parks "nose out." They may seem like annoyingly minor techniques, but they add up to big savings. The sticker on his Honda hybrid promised him 66 miles per gallon. He wants to double it. "For my 68-mile commute, I've averaged 103.6 mpg. That's my best so far, but I think I can do better."
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With gas well over $4 a gallon, many people are downsizing their vehicles or seeking magic-bullet engine gadgets and fuel additives. But when it comes to squeezing more miles per dollar, hypermilers are proving that the most effective weapon is the person behind the wheel. And the man who coined the term doesn't care what Americans drive -- he wants to change the way Americans drive.
"Anybody, no matter what they own and drive, can improve their fuel economy by at least 50 percent over that sticker in the summer -- maybe 20-25 percent in the winter," says Wayne Gerdes. "It's very easy to do." Traffic to his Web site, CleanMPG.com, has doubled in recent months, as people swap strategies and learn the basics.
"My trigger was tripped on 9/11. When the towers came down I said, 'I have to make a difference.' My difference was to start driving for better fuel economy," he says. "There's people that are worried about global warming, CO2 emissions, local smog-forming emissions and of course there are people worried about putting the buck in their pocket instead of into the gas station. Hypermiling works for all those people."
The trend has already taken hold in Europe and Japan where fuel is twice as expensive as gas in the U.S. And the seismic shift in driver mindset is not just for those who drive hybrids. Dartmouth student Benjamin Jones founded the site www.ecomodder.com, devoted to more efficient driving techniques and mechanical modifications. But instead of turning his nose up at the internal combustion engine, he swears by a 1991 Honda CRX. "My personal best on a trip is about 70 miles per gallon, and my personal best on a tank is in the high 50s," he says. "So, it's definitely possible with old cars."
For those ready to make the shift, both Gerdes and Jones recommend equipping the vehicle with a fuel consumption gauge which sells for under $200 and can be plugged into most cars built after 1996. Once you are able to monitor your average mpg, you can make small adjustments in driving technique, like turning off the engine at stop lights or driving at -- or just below -- the speed limit on the highway.
"Hypermiling is a whole buffet table of techniques, and it doesn't mean you have to absorb the whole buffet table," says Gerdes. "Take and pick what you want. Learn the basic techniques until they're second nature. Once they're second nature, then move on to the next one."
Some extreme techniques, like rolling through rural stop signs, or tailgating 18-wheelers for decreased wind resistance, can be dangerous or illegal. And while Gerdes has instructions on this sort of "drafting" on his Web site, he claims that a skilled hypermiler is a much safer driver overall. "Instead of paying attention to the ornament on your hood or the bumper right in front of you, you're paying attention to a bigger area," he says. "So, you don't react to a situation. You've already planned for it."
With traffic zipping by on the highway, Flory employs a "pulse and coast" method which can save more than a dollar a gallon. "The speed limit here is 55, but I'll do 45 to 50 and people can just deal with it," he says.
Does he get honked at?
"Occasionally. But I get an equal number of thumbs-up and waves."