Eco-Driving Systems: Now Your Car Can Gently Nag You Into Being More Fuel-Wise

By John O'Dell April 6, 2009


Ford's SmartGauge features a multitude of displays to help people become more fuel-efficient drivers.

By Robert E. Calem, Contributor

Regardless of the kind of car you drive, one of the keys to improving fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to drive smarter - don't hammer the accelerator pedal, don't brake harshly and do steadily maintain just enough speed to keep up with the flow of traffic without passing everyone in sight.

These often are not easy tasks.

To help, automakers have begun rolling out new features and technologies that call attention to uneconomical driving behavior and offer "rewards" for fuel-efficient driving.

Some of these features are passive, like instrument panels that change color as fuel economy improves.

Others more actively engage with the driver, such as an accelerator pedal that pushes back when pressed too aggressively.

Some automakers are even working on technologies that will be able to take the driver out of the fuel economy equation by allowing the car to practically drive itself with best mileage in mind.

Read on to learn more about the driver training features and technologies in cars you can buy today, and be able to buy tomorrow.

Smart Gauges Make Smarter Drivers

"The whole idea is coaching the driver, but as a good coach you don't want to preach," says Sonya Nematollahi, driver information engineering supervisor at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., while describing the "SmartGauge with EcoGuide" instrument cluster in the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids.

Conceived by Ford in collaboration with IDEO, the design and innovation consultancy that also devised the Swivel 'n Go seating in Chrysler minivans, SmartGauge consists of two 4.3-inch, high-resolution color LCD screens - one on either side of the analog speedometer - that display a collection of digitally rendered gauges accessed through multi-layered menus.

SmartGauge with EcoGuide, fashioned by Ford Design Studio with features input from the industrial design firm Smart Design, uses the menus and gauges to offer increasingly detailed information in four modes: Inform, Enlighten, Engage and Empower.


"Like a good coach, we designed modes into SmartGauge to engage drivers at their experience levels and then guide them to new energy-efficient behavior," says Steve Bishop, global lead for sustainability at IDEO in Palo Alto, Calif.


Green leaves 'grow' on fusion instrument panel as visual reward when fuel economy improves.


"Video games engage their users in a similar fashion with levels. In fact, when we observed hybrid drivers, we found they were going for high scores, a gaming behavior that has never existed in cars before. We designed to accommodate it."

Steering-wheel mounted directional buttons are used to navigate through the modes, and the driver can customize the displays in each mode by adding or removing gauges.

In the "Inform" mode, for instance, a simple battery charge status gauge is available.

In "Empower," the choices expand.

One  is a "threshold box" that shows how much engine power is being use. Drivers trying for the most efficient driving style have to modulate accelerator pedal pressure to keep a pointer within the confines of the box. Another choice in "Empower" is a gauge that shows the electrical loads created by the various accessories when they are in use - for example, the impact that using the air conditioning has on fuel economy.

The right-side screen on the Ford and Mercury hybrid sedans displays fuel consumption in various driver-selected formats, including instant fuel economy and historical average fuel economy, which is shown on a rolling bar graph for the past 10, 20 or 60 minutes.

This screen also is home to the "Efficiency Leaves" section of the EcoGuide, which shows green leaves growing on vines as the driving style becomes more efficient. Leaves fall off of the vines as the driving style becomes more aggressive.

"It's an instant reward" to motivate the driver, Nematollahi says.

Ford did not want to appear to be punishing drivers for being too aggressive, so there is always at least one leaf displayed, she adds.

When the car is turned off, summary information from the just-completed trip, as well as long-term comparative data, is displayed. InsightEcon copy.jpg

Guiding Lights

Honda uses a slightly different approach to driver training in the 2010 Insight hybrid, which hit dealer showrooms late last month.


Honda Insight's "Econ" button damps down throttle response and cuts air conditioning to save fuel.


The Insight's Ecological Drive Assist (Eco Assist) feature simply changes the lighting color of a 3D arc displayed behind the speedometer. It glows green in response to smooth acceleration and braking, which are the most efficient ways to drive hybrids because the former saves fuel and the latter maximizes the recapture of energy to the battery during the regenerative braking process.

Less-efficient driving results in a blue-green background color. Aggressive acceleration and hard braking - which greatly reduces the amount of energy that can be recaptured - turns the background lighting blue.

The color-changing scheme illustrates the impact of personal driving styles on fuel economy in a quickly understandable, non-distracting way, explains William Walton, manager of product planning for cars at American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance, Calif. It tries to create a more economical driving style by challenging drivers to keep the speedometer's background glowing green.

It is similar to the speedometer lighting scheme in the current Toyota Camry hybrid, which cycles through three shades of blue as fuel economy increases.

Another aspect of Honda's Eco Assist is the Eco Guide. It uses a small LCD screen beneath the tachometer - the Multi-Information Display (MID) - to provide more specific feedback about the driver's impact on fuel economy. 10Insight_EX_Int_026.jpg

The lower section of the display indicates how efficiently the driver is accelerating or braking, with a horizontal bar that extends to the right or to the left. The driver's goal is to keep the bar as short and close to the centerline as possible by smoothly transitioning between braking and accelerating, and by braking smoothly. A longer bar to the right indicates less efficient acceleration, and a longer bar to the left indicates less efficient braking. At the extremes, grey boxes mark the car's most inefficient performance level.

In the upper portion of the Eco Guide screen, Honda, like Ford, uses a display of green leaves to indicate fuel-efficient driving during the current trip. And when the car is turned off, the MID displays an Eco Score screen that uses the number of leaves to rate the driving in the just-completed trip, as well as the driver's long-term driving habits.

To help improve scores, Eco Assist also includes an ECON button on the dashboard. Pressing it activates some automatic fuel-saving functions. One of these is throttle angle input optimization, which adjusts for variations in how a driver presses the accelerator. Others include a four percent reduction in engine power and torque (unless the accelerator pedal is floored), and more efficient operation of the air conditioning system.

All That and More 2010PriusIP.jpg

Toyota's 2010 Prius, which launches late next month, will have many of the same driver training and fuel efficiency aids, although in a far more elaborate display splashed acorss a narrow, easy-to-read information screen that stretches across the top edge of the dash.

For example, the Hybrid System Indicator display resembles the Insight's Eco Guide, visually indicating whether the driving style is within an economical range. It also will track the amount of electricity recaptured in regenerative braking, display fuel economy data -- by the minute, at five minute intervals, or over the five most recent trips.

An ECO mode button in the new Prius (which is similar to the Insight's ECON button) moderates throttle response and reduces air conditioning to save power.

But the Prius also has an EV button that helps keep the car moving at low speeds under electric power only to optimize fuel efficiency. 

GM, too, is looking to incorporate such technologies and features in the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid now in development.

"We're striving on the development Volt to provide the information to help the driver drive better, more economically and more efficiently, and take advantage of the vehicle itself and the technology that's in there," says Nicholas Zielinksi, vehicle chief engineer for advanced systems integration at General Motors Corp.'s Global Advanced Vehicle Development Center in Warren, Mich.

Computer Tutor

Italy's Fiat last year introduced eco:Drive, a computer software application that works with the latest version of the automaker's Blue&Me system - which is like Ford's Sync and was jointly developed with Microsoft Corp. - to offer eco-friendly driving tips.

While the car is being driven, an ordinary USB flash card plugged into the Blue&Me USB port records data pertaining to the vehicle's fuel consumption and exhaust emissions, and the driver's acceleration, braking and shifting patterns. Later, the data is downloaded to a personal computer equipped with the eco:Drive software, which can suggest specific changes to driving behavior that can improve fuel economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Fiat says drivers following the eco:Drive advice can expect a 15 percent reduction in vehicle CO2 emissions and annual fuel-cost savings of as much as 200 euros ($268 at today's exchange rates). 

The technology made its debut last fall with the latest Blue&Me in new Fiat 500 and Grande Punto models and it is expected to be offered in the remainder of Fiat's new Blue&Me-equipped vehicles this year.

We care about Fiat because it may end up as Chrysler's controlling shareholder, and its cars and technologies would then start showing up over here. Eco Pedal Diagram.jpg

Push Pedal

Nissan last summer tested a similar Web-based service with small groups of drivers in Washington, D.C. and Farmington Hills, Mich.

The drivers were able to go online to check their vehicles' fuel consumption statistics and get driving advice based on how they did on their most recent trips. On average, the service helped boost fuel economy by 7.7 percent, with the best increase being 24 percent, says Bob Yakushi, director of product safety at Nissan North America in Franklin, Tenn.

The automaker already offers this capability in Japan, tied to its Carwings navigation system, which also includes a service named "Eco-Drive and You" that gives audible fuel-saving driving tips during a trip.

Sometime this year, Nissan is planning to introduce ECO Pedal - an accelerator pedal that pushes back if the driver is accelerating too quickly for optimal fuel economy.

A world-first technology, it is based on the Distance Control Assist feature - currently offered in Infiniti vehicles - which causes the accelerator pedal to push back if the driver is getting too close to a car in front.

"It's a very subtle kind of pushback," Yakushi says. The "haptic" feedback is accompanied by a visual cue - an ECO light adjacent to the tachometer that turns from green to amber as the acceleration rate enters the less economical zone.

The goal is to "make drivers more aware" of their impact on fuel economy and "help them change their habits to help the environment," as well as benefit from better fuel consumption, Yakushi adds. According to Nissan research, drivers using the ECO Pedal can improve their vehicle's fuel efficiency by up to 10 percent.

Yakushi says Nissan still has no final rollout schedule for ECO Pedal, but he added that it likely will be introduced first into higher-end vehicles in Japan. ECO Pedal is part of the  Nissan Green Program 2010, an effort to collectively reduce the CO2 emissions of its vehicles by 70 percent (from year 2000 levels) by 2050. It uses a three-level approach that includes vehicle technology, addressing driving behavior, and "traffic and society" initiatives.

Sense and Sensibility

That last level includes technology called cooperative ITS (intelligent transportation systems), which creates a communications link between a highway traffic information infrastructure and vehicles on the road - as well as vehicle-to-vehicle communications links.

Among other benefits, these communications links can be used by a vehicle to obtain traffic flow data. The information will be leveraged by systems in the vehicle to help the driver improve fuel economy and reduce emissions or - a bit further in the future - to allow the vehicle to drive itself in a more eco-friendly way.

Nissan tested a cooperative ITS scenario last September in Los Angeles in cars equipped with specially modified navigation systems that downloaded statistical traffic flow information from a variety of sources. The vehicles also gleaned real-time traffic flow information by tracking the volunteers' rates of movement via GPS  locators in their cell phones.

The navigation system used this information to calculate the fastest route guidance, and the result was an average 7.8 percent increase in fuel economy and an average 16.28 percent reduction in travel time compared to routes calculated without the data, at the same time of day, he says.

Cars With Smarts

Other automakers are researching and developing ways to link cooperative ITS technology to a vehicle's powertrain.

Audi's Smart Engines project, for example, uses real-time traffic information and topography data - such as road gradient - to set automatic throttle control and gear shift changes as well as air conditioner settings. The system allows a research vehicle to maximize fuel economy and minimize CO2 emissions while maintaining an ideal speed.

Some of the system's real-time data may be provided by Smart Nodes, another Audi project that uses a forward-facing camera and smart video-processing algorithms to determine the level of nearby traffic congestion.

Smart Nodes research vehicles, in turn, are acting as real-time traffic "probes" for another project named AudiStreets, which distributes the collective data to an ITS network used by other vehicles. audimap.jpg


Audi's navigation system shows the best route for fuel economy in purple, best for cutting smog-causing nitrogen oxides in yellow, and shows driver the amount of pollutants that the yellow route will eliminate.


Audi also is developing an environment-friendly navigation system that can determine which route would offer the best fuel economy or lowest emissions. The system also will display a particular car's efficiency gains while en route, says Chuhee Lee, team leader for connected vehicles at Volkswagen Group of America's Electronics Research Lab (ERL) in Palo Alto, Calif.

All of these projects are part of Audi's "Clean Air - A Viable Planet" initiative, which the ERL launched in late 2007 in cooperation with researchers at UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Volvo also is is studying how to link cruise control and navigation systems with access to  topography information so that the car would release the throttle at the top of a hill.

But it could be five years before this sort of development is commercialized, says Peter Ewerstrand, director of the CO2 Project at Volvo Cars in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Meanwhile, Ewerstrand and other eco-driving specialists say that drivers - who typically influence 20 percent of a vehicle's fuel consumption - remain the single most important factor.

"A car will never give high mileage," Ewerstrand declares, "unless the driver wants and tries to get high mileage."

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


greenpony says: 5:48 PM, 04.06.09

Promoting economical driving is important, no doubt, but is there any concern about safety? With as many bad drivers as are out there already, do we really need people taking their eyes off the road even more?

altimadude00 says: 7:27 PM, 04.06.09

This takes eco-driving to a whole new, scary, and anal-retentive level.

The car shouldn't be coercing me into driving in a way that is different than the way I drive right now.

If you really want to save the environment, drive a pedal car to work.


No HTML or javascript allowed. URLs will not be hyperlinked.