Hypermiling your fuel economy ??? The greenest extreme sport for cars

I've observed with mild amusement the recent spate of stories in the mainstream media about fuel saving. Maybe you have too.

You know the kind of articles. "Ten Ways to Survive High Gas Prices". "8 Things You Must Do to Save at the Pump". Even the venerable old Federal Trade Commission has a published list. Gasoline price spikes bring these out like a spring rain conjures up the worms. Once the price surge recedes (or the public gets used to the new price level) the media attention to fuel-saving goes underground again - just like the earthworms.

Yes, our collective memory is short. The wheels seem to turn something like this in the American brain. "Geez, $2.98 a gallon! Next time I buy a new vehicle I'd better downsize to something with better fuel mileage. I'm gonna go broke filling up this barge." Two weeks later, gas drops to $2.80 a gallon. "Wow, only $2.80 a gallon, now that's more like it". Collectively, we blithely ignore both past history (remember $1.25 a gallon gas?) and future trends (how high can it go?). But don't take my word for it. Check out the Oct. 19 AutoblogGreen post The Forgetfulness is Real.

Talk about forgetting. These fuel-saving tip lists are largely forgettable and that's regrettable. Most of them haven't changed much since the '50s. That's all the way back to President Eisenhower, father of the interstate highway system, for you history buffs. Same old hoary axioms: slow down, check tire pressure. You know the dreary drill. That's the problem. Dullsville. Let's face it. Quoting your fuel economy numbers is not a slam dunk pickup line at Club Med. Ripping off low ETs at the local dragstrip has a whole lot more "red-blooded-American-boy" appeal.

OK, so we forget about fuel economy and pursuing it doesn't get our juices flowing. The question I'm left with is this: Can efficiency get hip, slick and cool?

The answer is a qualified yes. It'll never compete with the rumble of a hairy V-8, but fuel efficiency can be made into something, shall we say, a little less wimpy. One way to make that happen is to make it into a game - the more extreme, the better. Think of it as a rather strange version of final jeopardy for competitive obsessive-compulsive types. Come along with me into the bizarre world of the Hyper-milers.

Hypermilers are the Hell's Angels of miles per gallon. These guys and gals play for keeps. A hypermiler is someone who regularly beats the EPA fuel economy estimates for a particular vehicle. The term is most closely associated with hybrid drivers. It's easy to see why. Hybrids make fuel economy hard to ignore because their whiz-bang video dashboards are continually rubbing the driver's mpg number in his or her nose. With fuel economy staring you in the face 24/7, you're almost guaranteed to get hooked on fuel economy like a hapless tourist wandering the slot-infested streets of Las Vegas. Even though the term hypermiler got its start with hybrid drivers, it's equally applicable to drivers of non-hybrid vehicles. Especially if they take it to extremes.

Extremes? Think you got game because you inflate your tires to manufacturer's specs? These dudes wouldn't think of turning the key unless their tires were pumped to at least 40 psi. Feel virtuous because you took off that roof rack to reduce aerodynamic drag? It's common for hypermilers to fabricate their own fender skirts and wheel covers to clean up their vehicle's aerodynamics. I was feeling cocky because I removed the passenger seat of my diesel daily driver to save unnecessary weight. That is until I learned it's not unheard of for a hypermiler to strip out their vehicle's entire interior.

Then there're maniacs like Mike Dabrowski in Connecticut at 99mpg.com. Mike has modified his Honda Insight with additional batteries, a fifth wheel (to move the car on electric power alone), more electronic circuitry than the Apollo Lunar Lander and regularly nets 99 mpg or better. Kind of the Hulk Hogan of hybrid tuners, I'd say. I should also mention Wayne Gerdes of Chicago, Illinois. Wayne was part of a team that drove a Toyota Prius for more than 1,200 miles, in two straight days of driving on a single tank of gas. The feat was featured in an HBO Earth Day Special Too Hot Not to Handle. Gerdes asserts "Anybody can be a hypermiler. It doesn't matter if you're in a Dodge Durango getting 10 mpg today. You can get 15 mpg tomorrow. It's going to save fuel. And this country needs that." I've heard Wayne will be featured in an upcoming issue of Mother Jones magazine.

Hypermilers like Mike and Wayne are wont to keep precise records of their experimental alterations and fuel economy results. Several web communities serve as watering holes for these intrepid souls. See cleanmpg.com for an example. Here notes can be compared and fish stories shared. Hey, what's the point of scoring big economy numbers if you don't have a place to brag about it after the "game"? This is starting to sound like fun.

Of course, Internet communities are just the tip of the iceberg. In the spirit of "anything worth doing is worth over-doing", there is the world series of hypermiling, the Shell Eco-Marathon. This annual event started as the "Shell Mileage Marathon" in 1939, long before anyone heard of hybrids, after an argument between employees of Shell Oil's research laboratory in Wood River, Illinois. The bone of contention was whose car gave the best fuel mileage. From the outset in Wood River, the rules were as simple as the concept: to see which vehicle could go the farthest distance on the least amount of fuel. In 1939, the winner achieved 50 mpg. Shaved tires, acid-dipped body shells, tiny engines and lots of coasting with the engine off were the hot ticket to economy back in the day. What about 21st century tech? In the 2006 Shell Eco-Marathon, the winning French team achieved fuel consumption of 6,786 miles per gallon! Beats your usual EPA mileage rating by a bit, n'est pas.? The vehicles aren't Geo Metro FX's or diesel VW Rabbits. They are purpose-built, carbon fiber, titanium and aluminum streamliners powered by gas, diesel, LPG, electricity or biomass fuel. This, my friends, is decidedly not dull fuel economy. The event hosted 255 teams from 20 countries this year back in May in Nagaro, France.

On another front, the fun facet of fuel economy is being infused into motorsport. NASCAR is considering E85 fuel and the legendary Le Mans 24-hour race in France was won by an Audi diesel vehicle that required less refueling stops than the competition. Across the pond in merry old England, the concept of Energy Efficient Motor Sport is taking hold. A rather compelling brochure is available for download at The Energy Efficient Motorsport. To quote from their material:

"Over the next ten years the Automotive Industry will have to meet the challenge of complying with increasingly demanding environmental legislation.

It is already widely accepted that non-fossil fuel based solutions are needed if future legislative targets for energy consumption and reduced emissions by motor vehicles are to be met. There is no doubt that the competitive and highly skilled engineers that characterize the staff of the UK's Motorsport Valley companies can make invaluable contributions towards creating these new solutions."

That's all well and good, but how can you play the extreme fuel efficiency game at home with your own vehicle? Here's a primer assembled from the radical fringe of extreme fuel efficiency enthusiasts be they hypermilers or just plain hyper.

In any vehicle, fuel is consumed to:
  • 1) Overcome Inertia
  • 2) Overcome Rolling Resistance
  • 3) Overcome Aerodynamic Drag.
Of course, there's also the engine's internal friction to be overcome. Not much you can do about that other than using the lowest viscosity motor oil recommended by the manufacturer. Avoid fuel-saving rip-offs that claim to use Teflon or some mystery formula to "reduce friction and wear". Don't get me started on the flurry of new gas-saving devices like fuel "catalysts", fusion-driven plasma spark plugs or similar ilk. The only way to save money with these products is not to buy them in the first place! Fuel is also consumed to provide power for electrical devices and power for heating and cooling the interior. But let's confine ourselves to the big three for today. Minimize any of the three factors above and you put points on the board in the extreme fuel efficiency game. Let's consider each in turn.

Overcoming inertia? Simple physics. Minimize mass by chucking out all unnecessary weight. Conserve momentum by avoiding the brakes like the plague. If you leave plenty of room between you and the next vehicle on the road, it's simple. Get off the accelerator pedal whenever you can. This means coast whenever you have an opportunity. Scan the road ahead to anticipate stops far in advance. This allows you to get off the "gas", coast along and perhaps avoid the need to hit the brakes at all. Discipline your right foot to avoid hard acceleration. Have a rarely used third row of seats in your SUV? Why drag it around town unnecessarily the rest of the time? Want to take this to extremes? Dump the spare tire, jack, stereo, and air conditioning. Lose 20 lbs. off your waistline. It might help your health as well as your fuel economy. Note the recent federal study on the cost of overweight drivers. Avoid coming to a complete stop. Do whatever you can to maintain your rolling momentum. It requires less fuel to accelerate from a low speed than from a dead stop.

Overcoming rolling resistance? Install narrower tires than stock. Wider tires increase rolling resistance. Performance handling or so-called "summer tires" typically have softer and stickier compounds that improve handling but detract from fuel economy. A tire with a harder compound and a high wear rating (e.g. 500+) has lower rolling resistance than a performance tire. Check load rating of the tires so you don't compromise safety. Pump yourself up. Go 5 psi over stock on your tire pressures. This reduces tire flex and improves mileage and sharpens handling. Pick a lane and stay there. Weaving in and out of traffic increases rolling resistance and lengthens your trip. Remember the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Overcoming aerodynamic drag? Don't drive over 60 mph. Relax in the far right lane. Doing 70 vs. 60 costs you about 20 percent more fuel. Take off the rooftop carrier when not in use. Lowering springs minimize your frontal area and thereby reduce aerodynamic drag. Don't add big mirrors, extra lights, bush bars, rear wing the size of a picnic table or other optional items to your vehicles exterior unless you really need them. They dirty up your airflow and cost you fuel.

A warm engine is a happy engine. A happy engine is an efficient engine. Preheat your engine with a block heater if you can. Drive the first 2 miles of the day at moderate speeds. Most engines only get 10 percent of their rated City EPA mileage in the first mile from a cold start. Think 5 mpg for that 50 mpg diesel! A coolant preheating unit like the BlueHeat™ coolant heater can eliminate the poor fuel efficiency associated with a cold engine start. Avoid idling. At idle, your engine is getting zero miles per gallon. Idling is a lousy way to warm up an engine. It's much better to drive at moderate speeds getting some mpg rather than zero mpg. Combine short trips into one longer trip. Short trips kill fuel mileage because the vehicle never warms to its normal operating temperature where fuel efficiency is optimum.

Fuel efficiency is a game worth playing regardless of whether you use an alternative fuel or a traditional fuel. While some of the suggestions above may seem extreme, at least the majority of them have the virtue of being inexpensive. Keep consistent records to keep your motivation high. Fuel mileage recordkeeping is like maintaining a workout diary to chart your gym progress. Before you know it, you might find yourself enjoying the game of flexing your new fuel efficiency muscles.

One last thing. Lest we forget, the best way to save fuel is not to use it at all. Park the wheels. Walk a couple of blocks. Burning body fat is the ultimate "biofuel".

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