Being a Smarter Driver pays off – and now I’m hooked

Blog - June 25, 2012 - By Ed Whittingham

I have become a fuel economy junkie.

I can no longer drive without obsessing over the fuel economy gauge in the centre of the dashboard. The LCD display provides real-time information on the amount of fuel being used to propel the car that I am driving. My spirits rise and fall with its every movement. When the number falls — 4.7, 4.6, right on, 4.2! — I’m on a high! When the number climbs — 6.7, 7.5, no, 9.2! — I’m crestfallen.

Maybe a little context is in order. I signed up to participate in Shell Canada’s Smarter Driver Challenge, a cross-Canada road trip aiming to set a national record for the least amount of fuel used to drive from Halifax to Vancouver (six tanks of gas or less). A challenge designed to show Canadians how changing driving styles can dramatically improve fuel efficiency. (Lorraine Sommerfeld ofthe Globe and Mail is chronicling the tour as one of the primary drivers.)

Ed Whittingham participates in the Smarter Driver ChallengeOn June 20, I met the full Smarter Driver Challenge team in Medicine Hat, Alberta, where I was to take the wheel for the tour’s Medicine Hat to Calgary leg. I was ushered out to a shiny new conventional gasoline-powered VW Passat. There in the passenger seat sat my intrepid smarter driving guide for the morning, John Taylor, one half of “The World’s Most Fuel Efficient Couple”. Taylor is an Aussie ex-professional soccer player (or “footballa” he would say in his hybrid Brit-Aus accent, a consequence of years of playing in the U.K.), cancer survivor, driving expert and compelling conversationalist.

Road tuned 

For many people the trip begins by selecting favourite road tunes. For John, the tuning starts before you actually get in the car, with no-brainer maintenance like checking your tire pressure. For example, for every one psi your tires are underinflated, you’re wasting up to three per cent of your fuel efficiency. Removing your roof rack to reduce drag, or taking out luggage you don’t need to reduce weight are further opportunities to increase fuel efficiency.

MAP-ping the Smarter Drive
M- Smarter maintenance and weight
A- Smarter actions behind the wheel
P- Smarter products in the gas tank 

John began my training by explaining the “MAP” philosophy behind the smarter driving technique. “The ‘M’ stands for smarter maintenance and weight. The ‘A’ is for smarter actions, what you do as a driver behind the wheel. And the ‘P’ is for smarter product, what you put in the car both for fuel and for engine lubricant.”

The M and P seemed reasonable enough to me, especially since there’s no shortage of mechanical engineer types at the Pembina Institute willing to pontificate about the importance of tire pressure and a fuel’s nitrogen enrichment to overall drive train efficiency. But the A was leaving me still a bit skeptical, as I explained in a previous blog post.

As a practitioner of “learn as you go,” John had me fire up the Passat after his “MAP” explanation and we joined the perils of rush hour in downtown Medicine Hat.

Since my usual driving is best described as grandfatherly, he was impressed with my slow acceleration, one of the key techniques in fuel-efficient driving. Through experimentation I could see the difference between burning 20 to 30 litres per 100 kilometres through rapid acceleration versus somewhere in the low to mid-teens of litres per 100 kilometres with gradual acceleration. While insignificant as a one-time event, compound that difference over dozens or even hundreds of accelerations during a trip and you can see how fuel consumption adds up.

Why rush to stop?

Where the lights went on for me was around, well, lights. John would point out a red light up ahead and ask a simple question — why rush to stop? In other words, it makes no sense to burn through gas to maintain your speed getting to a red light then wear down your brake pads when you get there. Instead, you can let your car’s momentum take you there and gradually decelerate without braking. It’s completely intuitive and sensible, yet I was amazed at how rarely I practice the principle. Again, when compounded over 24 years of driving, I can’t begin to fathom how much fuel I have burnt needlessly in rushing to stop.

The zen of smarter driving

As we made our way from the Hat to Calgary via the TransCanada Highway, John offered a number of tips to do with smooth driving, controlling speed, avoiding excess idling and keeping one’s distance. I liken it to learning the zen of smarter driving, whereby every action — working the gas and brake pedals, moving in and out of lanes, adjusting the air conditioning — is defined by the lightness of our touch. It was strangely akin to doing as little as possible to impede the physics of motion, and for an energy geek like me it was fascinating.

Eco-road warrior

In direct contrast to a zen-like state of peace and harmony, in the driver's seat I became obsessed with the readings of that hypnotic L/100 kms indicator (i.e. instant and average measures of the litres of gas required to drive the car 100 kilometres).

But my touch of fuel economy OCD paid off. From the Hat to the Shell building in downtown Calgary, I averaged 5.4 litres per 100 kilometres, or 34 per cent better than the Canadian average (8.2 litres per 100 kilometres for mixed city and highway driving). I scored well within the 30-40 per cent improvement band that the Smarter Driving Challenge tour had as a goal. And, as those who know me well would say, I have a mild competitive streak, so there was the consideration of how I ranked against the other drivers on the tour.

And while not disclosing the actual scores of the other drivers, John did tell me that 5.4 was good for number two among the Challenge drivers. (I have a sneaky suspicion that a certain Globe and Mail columnist owns the number one spot.) In particular I would like to know how I stack up against my eco-nemesis, the fiendish Bob Oliver, executive director of Pollution Probe, who took the wheel the day after my venture.

Easing off emissions

Totals for the national roadtrip (Halifax to Vancouver):

Fuel economy: 5.59 L/100km average, which equals a 31.83 per cent improvement based on 8.2 L/100km combined city/highway Canadian average.

Total fuel cost: $452.90 total = $0.071 per km

Tanks: 4.69 tanks of fuel consumed (VW Passat)

Range: 1352 km/tank

Number of drivers: 8

More important than my competitive ego of course is what a 34 per cent fuel economy improvement on a Medicine Hat-to-Calgary trip meant for cost and pollution savings. In that one trip I saved over 4.5 litres of gas. Continuing this kind of reduction, I could save 330 litres a year by driving smarter every day, and keep about $400 in gas expenses in my pocket (based on the average Canadian using 17,600 litres per year).

If only one in 20 Canadian drivers were to drive even 20 per cent more efficiently, it would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from driving by about 800,000 tonnes per year, the equivalent to taking 207,740 cars and light trucks off the road.

And I can confirm that the skills are transferrable across vehicles — with hardly any obsessive-compulsive behaviour, I easily boosted my fuel economy by 25 per cent when driving home in my own car from Calgary to Banff following the Challenge.

Helen Taylor, the other half of the World’s Most Fuel Efficient Couple, summed it up well: “I’m for not owning a car if you live in a city, car pooling, flexible working hours and working from home. I promote that. But realistically a lot of people need a vehicle, and if you drive one I’m also for doing so smartly and efficiently.” My own behind-the-wheel investigation leads me to conclude that she makes a good point.

As Canada sets out to the road on summer holidays, Pembina will be busy crunching numbers in a final Smarter Driver report, looking into the role of efficient driving within the wider context of reducing emissions.

Ed Whittingham

Ed Whittingham was the Executive Director of the Pembina Institute until 2017.


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