Going to extremes to save on fuel

People go to extremes to use as little gas as possible in their cars.
A motorist gets ready to pump gasoline into her minivan at the Mobil Station in Andover, Mass. More and more drivers across North America are embracing new driving techniques to reduce their gas consumption. ((Charles Krupa/Associated Press))

Corey Rollins never used to shy away from the fast lane, passing car after car to get where he needed to go quickly on the highway.

All that has changed. These days, you're more likely to find the 22-year-old recent college graduate driving his sporty Honda Prelude on the quietest back roads, barely driving the speed limit and creeping up to red lights and stop signs.

The reason behind his dawdling? High gas prices.

Rollins is one of hundreds of Canadians who are drastically changing their driving habits to reduce the amount of gas they use.

They call themselves hypermilers, and they regularly trade tips online about the most effective ways to increase their fuel efficiency. They talk about rolling toward stop signs, driving 80 kilometres per hour on the highway and cutting their engines when going down a hill or gliding toward a red light.

They'll also compare personal bests, bragging about the time they drove 1,200 kilometres on a tank of gas or the day they got their mileage rating down to three litres per 100 kilometres.

"I'll be honest, I used to speed quite a bit before, but gas is just way more precious to me than getting there five or 10 minutes faster," said Rollins, a DJ and advertiser who lives in Surrey, B.C., and works in Vancouver.

6,000 hypermilers online

While Rollins considers himself an amateur hypermiler, others are practically professionals.

Manuel Santos, a Winnipeg engineer, embraced the lifestyle three years ago because he was concerned about the environment and the size of his carbon footprint.

He now oversees the Canadian arm of the popular hypermiling website CleanMPG  (Clean Miles Per Gallon) and has seen its membership blossom to upwards of 350 Canadians in recent months, an increase Santos attributes to the dramatic rise in the price of gas. Counting American and international registered viewers, the site counts 6,000 members.

"The movement has just snowballed," Santos said.

Santos, who drives a hybrid, said when hypermiling techniques are done properly, drivers can see their gas mileage far exceed what their car is supposed to get.

Santos' Honda Civic hybrid is supposed to get 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres, but he's had it as low as 2.7, a number he knows offhand because he's kept extensive logs over the past three years.

To get these kind of results, Santos embraces a variety of hypermiling techniques, which have catchy names, an extensive set of guidelines and a firm warning that drivers only use them when it's safe to do so.

They include:

  • The Pulse And Glide, which involves coasting in neutral, or even cutting the engine and gliding, when a target speed is reached.
  • Driving With Load, which sees drivers refraining from accelerating on hills even as their cars slow down.
  • Face Out, where drivers always park forward so that they can pull out of a spot instead of using the gas-guzzling reverse.

Going 80 on the highway

Most importantly, Santos said he always drives slowly because the faster a car goes, the exponentially higher its gas consumption.

"I'll go 80 if possible, staying in the right lane and letting everyone pass me," he said. "Sometimes you can't always be the slow turtle you want to be, but whenever I can, I will."

He said he used to be honked at by aggressive drivers annoyed by his pokey speed (he'll always try to pull out of the way when someone's on his heels), but these days, the honking has all but stopped.

"I think other people are driving slowly to save on gas now, too," Santos said. "I'll see a column of vehicles following behind me, no one trying to pass."

Rollins said slowing down was hard at first, but the friend who convinced him to try hypermiling in the first place kept urging him to stick with it.

"I would get impatient and say, 'Screw this,' but he would say, 'Trust me'," Rollins said.

Police notice the difference

Police are pleased that people are slowing down, even if the motivating factor is saving money, not personal safety.

"I'm not going to look a gift car in the radiator," said Sgt. Cam Woolley of the Ontario Provincial Police. "The truth is that people are prepared to risk their lives, but not 20 bucks."

Woolley said police have noticed a significant decrease in speed on Ontario's highways, with more cars travelling closer to the speed limit. Ontario's stricter speeding rules, and police enforcement of those rules, play a role in the decrease, but gasoline prices are also a major factor, Woolley said.

He said he hasn't seen speeds this slow since the fuel crisis of the 1970s.

"I talk to a lot of drivers, and fuel costs are slowing people down," Woolley said.

A self-described "car guy," Woolley said even he's embraced hypermiling practices by slowing down, taking backroads instead of fast highways, and making sure to properly maintain his car.

He drives a Ferrari, which people expect to be a gas guzzler, but Woolley manages to get 30 miles per gallon (roughly 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres).

Left lane hogs

But Woolley said there are drawbacks to the hypermiling movement. Some people are slowing down, but not moving out of the left passing lane.

"It's creating some frustration and road rage," Woolley said. "You'll see people passing on all sides and flashing their high beams."

He said other fuel-saving techniques make him wary. Police have been dealing with drivers who roll through stop signs to avoid the fuel-sucking full stop, while others will overinflate their tires to dangerous levels to reduce resistance.

Officers have also seen drivers buying useless gadgets, like pills that supposedly reduce gas consumption when dropped into a fuel tank, Woolley said.

Other drivers go to further extremes, by tailgating, or drafting, a large truck in order save gas by driving in the vacuum. Woolley said truckers have been complaining that this dangerous practice is occurring more and more frequently.

Santos and his CleanMPG members say they always insist on safety first and would never condone practices like drafting. They encourage drivers to only adopt the techniques that they are comfortable with, and that their cars can handle.

But Woolley said some drivers are still taking the risk.

"Sometimes it's hard to prove if they're hypermilers, or just bad drivers," Woolley said. "Saving fuel is not an excuse for stupidity."

Pick and choose

Edyta Zdancewicz, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Automobile Association, said the CAA applauds the safe hypermiling techniques, but urges drivers to always put safety ahead of fuel-saving.

"If you're hesitant about trying something, it's best not to," she said. "You have to pick and choose your principles."

She and Woolley both discourage drivers from shutting off their ignition while in motion, arguing that drivers never know when an emergency might arise and they might suddenly need to accelerate. Also, most cars' brakes will only pump a few times after the engine is shut off, and eventually will be useless.

Rollins said he uses the engine-cutting technique in his standard car, but he tries to minimize his risk. He only does it on a quiet route he's familiar with, and makes sure there's virtually no traffic.

Hypermilers say it's crucial to be hyper aware of the surroundings whenever they drive, a trait praised by police and the CAA.

Roger Davis, a retired University of British Columbia instructor, said he's always looking ahead to see if traffic is slowing down in the distance, or red lights are coming up. He wants to know traffic patterns well in advance so that he can start coasting in his new hybrid car, instead of slamming on the brakes, which takes far more fuel.

"It's really something a good driver should be doing anyway," said Davis, who started hypermiling about two months ago, as gas prices started climbing.

"You drive your car as if your brakes weren't working. These are techniques I've always known about, but it's now time to dust them off and put them into use."

Davis, who lives on Vancouver Island, said he's tried to adopt many of the hypermiling techniques — slowing down, keeping his car well-maintained and not accelerating on hills. He likes how relaxed he now feels behind the wheel as a result.

"It's almost like learning to drive a car all over again," he said. "It takes a lot of concentration, but once you get into the routine of it, it gets easier. It starts to becomes second nature.

"There's no question I will continue hypermiling. If we have the ability to do better with the scarce resources we have, and reduce the impact on the environment, it's only fair we try."