Hypermiling: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love U.S. Gas Prices

A lot of people are complaining about the price of gasoline these days. It's not hard to find someone who is outraged at paying nearly 4 bucks a gallon to fill up their tank, and the issue has become so politicized and polarizing that we hear a lot of arguments about whether or not we should be doing more drilling, implementing stricter standards on automobile efficiency, or investing in alternative energy sources. Some people believe there are vast petroleum resources that still need to be tapped, while others believe we've long since passed peak oil.

I must say, though, I'm a little puzzled by all the fuss. I have never been bothered much by the price of gas. Part of the reason is that I drive a fairly fuel-efficient vehicle, but the main reason is that I make a conscious effort to drive smarter. I realized many years ago that I can save a lot of money on gasoline just by changing the way I drive. Regardless of what kind of vehicle you have, and regardless of what gasoline costs, you can cut 20 or 30 percent off the cost with minimal effort.

You may have heard of hypermiling. It's a simple concept whereby you improve your gas mileage by applying some fundamental laws about the conservation of energy and momentum. For instance, you may be aware of the fact that automobiles are rather heavy. It takes a lot of energy (gasoline) to get them moving, and it takes more energy to get them moving faster. You burn more gas going from 0-60 in 5 seconds than you would burn by going 0-60 in 10 seconds. Once you're up to 60, it uses relatively little gas to stay at that speed. You know, inertia (which is why cars usually get better mileage on the highway).

This principle is especially important in city driving, where you're likely to be accelerating and braking frequently. I always find it a little funny that people will so often speed ahead to a red light, as if the first person to stop is the winner. Stopping wastes a lot of gas too, because you're throwing away all your inertia, and must burn more gas to get going again.

So we should never stop at red lights, right? No, that would be insanely stupid. What I mean is, try not to be at the light while it's still red. If you're still moving, you still have some inertia; if you cruise up slowly and get there just in time for it to turn green, you may not need to stop at all.

Tailgating is another potential source of gas wastage. The more closely you follow another vehicle, the more quickly you may have to suddenly brake (losing inertia). When the car in front of you begins slowing down to make a turn, you'll have to slow down too, whereas if you were further behind them, their deceleration would have little or no effect on you, and you could keep your inertia. (Plus tailgating can also be incredibly dangerous).

I can hear you wondering at this point whether it's worth all the trouble. I can tell you from direct personal experience that it is. My car is rated at anywhere from 19 to 23 miles per gallon (city), depending on which statistics you look at. Let's call it 21 mpg. That's not too bad for a 22-year-old vehicle. But with the way I drive, I consistently get between 30 and 34 miles per gallon in the city.

How much money am I saving? A little math can tell us. Let's say I drive 300 miles, then fill up the tank at $3.75/gallon. At my average of 32 miles per gallon, this is $3.75 * (300 / 32) = $35.16. If I were not making any effort to drive smart, we can assume I'd be getting the rated 21 mpg, which works out to $3.75 * (300 / 21) = $53.57. So I saved $18.41 on this tank of gas, or about 35% off what I would have paid if I were a "normal" driver. Since I started keeping track of my gas mileage 4 years ago, I figure I've saved about $1200 (and I don't drive very often).

I am not alone either; there's a whole community of people who are saving money just by driving smarter. You don't need to buy anything, just make some small changes in your attitudes and perceptions while driving.

Hypermiling techniques range from basic to advanced, but I would summarize them like this:

  • Stay at or just a little under the speed limit.
  • Don't tailgate. In fact, do the opposite. Leave 2 or 3 car lengths per 10mph of speed. Yes, there will be a huge empty space in front of you, but this gives you plenty of time to react and slow down if needed.
  • Accelerate gradually. Unless of course you're drag racing.
  • Decelerate gradually. If there's a red light ahead, get your foot off the gas pedal. The only prize for getting to the red light first is a longer wait.

Or even more succinctly:

  • Don't drive like a jerk.

Driving smarter is the easiest, most cost-effective way to begin saving money on gasoline right now. No purchase necessary, enter as often as you like. Your wallet will thank you.

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