Fuel-Efficient Eco-Driving Tips From a Desert Racer

Sand Dunes or City Freeways, Calm Driving Is Key

Can we who compete for a lane change on a freeway learn about improving fuel economy from a desert rally that takes place in the wastelands of Morocco?

Yes, we can, says Amy Lerner of Alpine, New Jersey, who has competed twice in the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, which bills itself as the toughest of all sporting events for women. Lerner's authority comes from experience, since she and driving partner (and sister) Tricia Reina won the rally's 2012 Logica Challenge for Eco-driving.

"Eco-driving" is a term that describes the energy-efficient use of vehicles. Many carmakers are embracing the idea and providing drivers with tools to measure their driving efficiency, such as Fiat's Eco:Drive app. The goal is to achieve better fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions. Though vehicle engineering has made great strides in raising fuel economy, drivers can — and do — sabotage fuel economy with bad driving habits and improper vehicle maintenance.

Amy Lerner (right) and her sister, Tricia Reina, get a fix on their position during the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in Morocco.

Amy Lerner (right) and her sister, Tricia Reina, get a fix on their position during the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in Morocco.

A Different Kind of Racing

In the Gazelle rally, competitors who drive without taking fuel economy into account are penalized. Logica, a technology company in the U.K., measures the eco-efficiency of drivers by installing a device in each competition vehicle that captures information about abrupt acceleration, sudden braking, excessive idling and excessive speed (anything above about 50 mph). All these things are the enemies of eco-driving.

"You don't have people lane changing and cutting you off in Morocco," Lerner says. "But all the principles of eco-driving are just sound practices of being a good driver, whether you're on the shifting sands of the desert or the New Jersey Turnpike. Becoming a good eco-driver doesn't take much effort. It becomes intuitive very quickly."

Lerner says the key to eco-driving is anticipating what is up ahead. "Pay attention to your vehicle," she says. "Hear your engine accelerating without looking at the gauges. Feel acceleration and notice how hard you are braking. Smooth out your driving. Most of all, watch your speed. All the penalty points we racked up in Morocco came from driving too fast."

Tips for Eco-Driving

Here are some eco-driving techniques from Amy Lerner that can save you money a little bit at a time and a lot over the long haul. As a matter of fact, Edmunds' own fuel economy tests confirm that several of these suggestions make a useful difference in mpg.

  • Read the road and anticipate traffic flow: Keep your distance to about 3 seconds behind the vehicle ahead of you. This allows you to act instead of react, improves safety and enables steady driving.

  • Observe the speed limit: Assume that every 5 mph you drive over 60 adds 31 cents to a gallon of gasoline. If you keep that in mind and hold down your speed, you can save from 27-89 cents per gallon, according to fueleconomy.gov.

  • Calm down: The combination of speeding, rapid acceleration and harsh braking can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and by 5 percent around town. By slowing down and smoothing out your driving style, you can save between 19 cents and $1.28 per gallon. (In Edmunds testing, a "calm" driving style improved fuel economy by an average of 35 percent in highway driving.) Use cruise control to maintain a steady speed on lightly traveled highways as well as freeways.

  • Upshift sooner: If you're in a car with a manual transmission or an automatic that has a manual-shift mode, pay attention to when you shift. Driving at high rpm or even medium-high rpm always consumes more fuel than driving at low rpm. Get up to speed quickly (even skipping a gear now and then) and maintain your speed. Shift to a higher gear at approximately 2,000 rpm, always prioritizing safety by minding traffic situations and vehicle specifics first.

Stop Idling

Lerner reports that minimizing the amount of time the engine idles makes a very significant contribution to better mpg. "Even before the Gazelle, it drove my husband crazy that I always shut off the engine if we stopped," Lerner says. "But now I'm vindicated."

  • Stop the engine if you are going to be stopped for more than a minute. Idling can use a quarter to a half a tank of gas per hour, depending on the engine size and whether the air-conditioner is in use. Not idling can save between 1 and 4 cents per minute.

"Turn off the engine in situations that you can regulate," Lerner says. People don't turn their engines off at a long red light, but that is a situation where you can, she adds. Many other situations, such as waiting in a line to make a left turn, are not as conducive to a manual engine shut-off. In its own testing, Edmunds has found that drivers can improve fuel economy by 19 percent if they cut out excessive idling.

Soon, drivers won't even have to think about turning off the engine. Start/stop technology, which automatically shuts down the engine when a vehicle stops, is quickly becoming commonplace.

For 2012, 46 models from makers have start/stop systems, according to Edmunds data. By 2016, 40 percent of new vehicles built in the United States will include the systems, according to Johnson Controls Inc., a supplier of start/stop batteries. Start/stop can achieve fuel economy improvements of 5-12 percent in new vehicles, Johnson Controls estimates.

Help Your Car Help You

  • Check tire pressure: At least once a month and before driving at high speeds or on long trips, check to make sure that your tires are inflated to the correct tire pressure. Typically, passenger car tires can lose about 1 pound-per-square-inch (PSI) per month, according to tire manufacturer Michelin. Tires that are not properly inflated create more rolling resistance and cost you money at the pump.

  • Do your maintenance: Service your vehicle regularly in order to maintain energy efficiency and make sure you're using the prescribed engine oil.

  • Be efficient around town: Leave on time and know where you are going. Bundle and route your errands to avoid gas-wasting backtracks.

Prepare for road trips: Remove roof racks and boxes when you don't need them. They can drag down your fuel economy by 21 percent, Edmunds testing has found. Also take the junk out of your car. An extra 100 pounds in your vehicle could reduce your mpg by up to 2 percent, according to fueleconomy.gov.

"We won the Logica challenge by using our heads, maintaining our speed, planning our trip and adopting good driving practices," Lerner says. "We took it slow and steady. And it paid off."

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