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Hypermiling: the extreme way to save gas

In a world struggling with skyrocketing fuel costs and the unhappy prospect of peak oil – when global petroleum production has nowhere to go but down – drivers everywhere are pondering how to squeeze the most distance out of every litre burned.

In a world struggling with skyrocketing fuel costs and the unhappy prospect of peak oil – when global petroleum production has nowhere to go but down – drivers everywhere are pondering how to squeeze the most distance out of every litre burned.

What’s left to do once motorists have traded down to the smallest, most efficient vehicle they can live with and the fuel bills keep climbing? They may discover that learning how to drive to maximize their vehicle’s fuel efficiency can pay off handsomely.

“On my Toyota Celica, I installed a duct-tape upper and lower grille block, change gears at 1700 r.p.m., avoid traffic lights and turn the engine off when stopped. My current average is 54 m.p.g. (5.2 L/100 km),” reads one post on the Web.

Naturally, the Internet has propagated a pop term for the trend: hypermiling.

Hypermiling was coined by Wayne Gerdes, a Homer Simpson-like nuclear power plant worker in Illinois who demonstrated how he could push the performance envelop of hybrid vehicles not to go faster, but to go farther on a gallon of gas.

He once nursed a Honda Insight almost 300 km on a U.S. gallon of gas (an incredible 1.3 L/100 km – one-third of its government fuel consumption rating) by gently pressing on the gas pedal, reading the traffic lights far in advance and shunning the brakes.

Driving as if you don’t have brakes requires considerable skill and constant vigilance, which hypermilers say makes them good defensive drivers.

But the techniques sometimes require tailgating or taking corners at unsafe speeds, all with the goal of preserving kinetic energy.

Some of the advanced hypermiling strategies – such as pulse-and-glide and “surfing” a big rig – have been lightning rods for debate on the Internet.

At least the controversy has taken fuel economy awareness to a level beyond the mundane check-your-tire-pressure advice recited daily on the TV news.

Hypermiling owes a lot to geopolitics, videogames and, of course, the Internet.

Without the Web, Gerdes would have been just another enthusiast showing off at his local shopping-mall gymkhana on Sunday mornings.

With it, his strategies have been shared far and wide, and his notoriety has led to him being named King of the Hypermilers.

“Stop being a cheap retard,” reads one posting in response to a Mother Jones article that documented some of the hypermilers’ more radical ideas, such as following very closely behind tractor-trailers to ride in their slipstream, and driving right at the edge of the pavement to avoid fuel-sucking ruts and ridges in the road.

“Draft my rig, and they’ll be cleaning you off the bumper with a sponge,” wrote a trucker, unapologetically.

“It’s absolutely insane,” agrees Sgt. Tim Burrows of Toronto Police Traffic Services.

“If you’re right behind a big truck, you can’t see what’s ahead so your reaction time is compromised when the truck driver slams on his brakes. There’s no margin for error.”

He says drivers should maintain a buffer of two seconds between vehicles as a safe minimum, regardless of the speed.

Turning off your engine at red lights seems innocent enough – it’s widely practiced in some European countries – but Burrows points out the habit is potentially dangerous if you spy a car coming up behind you with no intention of stopping.

“You won’t be able to take evasive action if your motor isn’t even running,” he says.

However, Burrows notes that it is not illegal to shut off your car at a traffic light in Ontario, unlike in some U.S. states.

There is one hypermiling strategy that does appeal to police: slowing down.

Some hypermilers like to cruise on the highway at 80 to 90 km/h, markedly below the posted limited speed.

The reason is simple: living at the bottom of an ocean of air, vehicles expend tremendous energy cleaving through the atmosphere at highway speeds.

Speed up and fuel consumption actually increases exponentially. Wind resistance rises much more steeply between 120 km/h and 130 km/h than it does between 90 km/h and 100 km/h, for example.

“I tried some of the more modest techniques suggested by the hypermilers with a 2000 Windstar, and got 35 m.p.g. on the highway – a 60 per cent increase in mileage,” blogs one driver who advocates sticking to the posted limit.

Many hypermilers add an aftermarket real-time fuel consumption display to the dashboard of their vehicle so they can watch the consumption numbers rise and fall as they drive.

The digital displays have turned fuel-efficient driving into a videogame, where high scores and boasts are posted daily on hypermiler websites.

“Go hypermiling! A sport that one can respect because in the end, it’s a healthy competition anyone can do,” writes one enthusiastic blogger.

The politics of oil are frequently debated online, too.

“In a time when people (are) losing their lives in Iraq for oil, we should use every drop as efficiently as possible,” posted one American.

“I drive the speed limit now and use cruise control and let everyone pass me.”

Hypermiling is hardly new. Practices such as coasting to a stop were popular during World War II when oil was scarce.

The U.S. national speed limit was reduced to 55 m.p.h. (88 km/h) during the oil embargo of the 1970s.

“It reminds me of when we had the fuel blockades in the U.K. in 2000. Suddenly everyone was driving like a grandmother,” reads a post.

What is new is the sudden fascination with the phenomenon, thanks to information sharing through the Internet.

Homemade experiments are faithfully documented, shaky how-to videos are posted on YouTube, and endless threads of discussions fill the cyberspace.

Just Google hypermiling and a vast not-so-secret society unfolds before you.

Beyond a few hybrid-owners’ clubs, there aren’t many online discussions about hypermiling in the GTA.

It’s hard to say if the majority of motorists is ready to embrace even the simplest tenets of hypermiling. While drivers continue to idle their cars in front of convenience stores and even in gas-station lineups, hypermilers seem content to preach to the converted.

Many take solace in the tiny environmental victories they accomplish every day, such as this driver who posted his minuscule act of kindness.

“A squirrel lived yesterday because I was coasting down for a corner, both slowly and aware that there was no SUV on my ass.”

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