Thursday, October 13, 2005

Peak Oil Crisis: Eco-Driving

Falls Church News-Press

August 25, 2005

If you are not yet ready for eco-driving, you will be soon. Once gasoline reaches five dollars or more per gallon, drivers will have only one concern about their vehicles’ performance: “How do I get the most distance out of this tank of gas for which I just paid so dearly?” Performance, acceleration, speed limits, radar detectors, speeding points and all the other concerns that grew out of cheap oil will disappear before the altar of miles-per-gallon. This is where eco-driving (getting the most out of each gallon) comes in.

If one googles “eco-driving,” 99 percent of the hits come back from European sites. Decades of high gasoline taxes and a wide-spread concern about global warming have lead to a public awareness of fuel consumption well beyond anything we have yet to see on this side of the Atlantic . Fuel economy in America went out when Jimmy Carter was defeated some 25 years ago. It is about to make a comeback.

The first thing one needs to consider about saving gas is just who is paying for it: You? Your father? Your employer? Or the taxpayers?

If the answer is anyone but you, then the folks paying for the gas need to put some form of control over your driving habits or you, unless you are a very conscientious citizen, are likely to continue blowing our precious fuel out the exhaust pipe until the last drop is pumped from the last oil well.

The basic principle of eco-driving is a lot of gasoline and diesel fuel can be saved just by being very, very careful about when and how hard we push on the gas pedal. Most authorities say a 10% to 15% saving in fuel consumption is easy and that higher is possible with some special efforts.

In Europe , a whole eco-driving culture has grown up with formal classes, on-the-road training, and eco-driver certificates. Many European trucking companies require their drivers to be eco-certified and monitor their fuel consumption. Of course, Europe is already at six dollars per gallon so squeezing a bit more out of each liter is obviously more important.

Once you get by the “is this trip necessary” question, the basics of eco-driving should be well known to most of us— keep the tires inflated and the trunk empty, accelerate gently, look well ahead so you can coast rather than brake to a stop, and stay under 55 mph. There are lots of other things that can be done, but these make a good start.

If one lives in a flat, relatively empty place like the American mid-west, practicing these few rules and setting the cruise control to 55 mph is most of what you need to do.

For a lot of us, however, our driving is hilly, congested, complicated by stop signs, red lights, stop and go traffic, and a myriad of other impediments to good mileage. Trying to figure out how hard and for how long to push on the gas pedal becomes far more complicated.

The situation is similar to the complexities of economically piloting a large airliner. Years ago, the airlines and their aircraft designers figured out that a computer can do a far better job in getting the optimum mileage out of each gallon of kerosene than the best pilot in the world. Thus, they developed the auto-throttle. When a modern airline is ready to take off, the pilot pushes a button and the computer takes over the throttles. The computer can consider dozens of factors relating to optimizing the fuel efficiency of the flight and determine the proper amount of power many times per second.

A modern aircraft such as a Boeing 767 carries 24,000 gallons of fuel. At $2+ per gallon it is easy to see how saving a few percent on each flight can soon amount to big bucks.

As far as I know, nobody has yet developed an airline type auto throttle for cars and trucks. Such a device would be similar to the ubiquitous cruise control except that its purpose would be to keep the vehicle at a speed yielding the maximum possible miles per gallon for the load, gradient, and road conditions. When the price of gasoline gets high enough, some smart manufacturer is going to figure out that while cruise control is a good start, better mileage can be achieved by frequently varying the speed with the conditions.

Although a true mileage-maximizing “auto throttle” may be a ways down the road, a lot of cars are already equipped with computer displays that give the instantaneous miles per gallon and average miles per gallon since the last reset. Some of the more recent computers have excellent displays telling the driver nearly everything he would want to know about how efficiently he is driving. After market devices displaying the same information are available for around $130.

An instantaneous miles-per-gallon display tells a conscientious eco-driver how to vary the pressure on the gas pedal to save gas every second. With experience, it can become second nature and one is soon getting some 10 to 20 percent more distance out of each gallon.

A vigorous, enforced, nation-wide eco-driving program could make a big difference as we are now consuming some 170 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel per year on the nation’s highways.

Cutting this consumption back by 15 or even 20 percent could go along ways towards getting us through the first, difficult years after peak oil arrives.


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