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Gas-sipping hypermilers show how to cut gas consumption

by Leah Fabel
May 29, 2007


You know the type. They're a puttering annoyance on the freeway as you race past, and infuriating when you miss the light because they decelerate for a yellow. But don’t count on staring them down at the nearest gas station—they’re hardly ever there.

They’re hypermilers, a growing breed of conservationists who’ve taken a stand against what they see as America’s addiction to oil by figuring out how to drive maximum miles on minimum gallons. With Chicagoland leading the nation in the price of gas, up $1.35 per gallon over the past six months to Tuesday’s $3.65, they’re starting to seem like a pretty sharp crowd despite their odd and elaborate practices.

“I get in my car each morning and boot it up, but I don’t start it,” said Wayne Gerdes, a founding father of the hypermiling movement and the driver of a Honda Accord that he says gets 58 miles per gallon.

“I start rolling down the driveway, follow about a sixteenth of a mile, ignite the motor to 25 miles per gallon for about four seconds, then shut it down and glide,” he says.

Over the course of his 45-minute commute from the far northern Chicago suburb of Wadsworth to his job as a plant operator at Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station in Will County, Gerdes calculates his miles and gallons with the kind of careful precision you appreciate from someone who has nuclear power at his fingertips. “Pulse and glide,” he said of his freeway style. “Pulse and glide.”

His passion triggered by 9/11, Gerdes started a Web site (www.cleanmpg.com) that has grown to nearly 1,000 members in just over a year, hosted free gas-saving clinics in his driveway, and set world records for most miles per gallon. Team-driving with five other enthusiasts last September, he navigated a Honda Insight for 2,254 miles on just one tank of gas, a mere 13.7 gallons. That world record is the equivalent of a round trip between Chicago and Houston.

Gerdes is the first to admit, however, that his radical “pulse and glide” techniques aren’t for the casual driver. “You have to understand, I am a totally serious driver focused 100 percent of the time on the traffic around me,” he said. Safety measures, he said, not to mention legality, are important factors, addressed on his Web site.

That said, all drivers in any car, save perhaps the budding Nascar racer, can learn something from hypermilers.

Rule No. 1 is to slow down. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, each 5 mph over 60 mph costs drivers an additional 20 cents per gallon. “Aggressive driving can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and by 5 percent around town,” the department’s Web site states.

The next step, according hypermiling.com, is somewhat counter-intuitive: Stay off the brakes, as well as off the accelerator. Leave at least two seconds between yourself and the car in front of you, the site says, in order to decrease the braking and accelerating that uses up precious gasoline.

Then take the no-braking strategy even further. Hypermiling.com encourages drivers to look ahead to stop lights. If a light is about to turn red or even a yellow, start coasting and come as near as you can to a natural stop instead of a gas-gulping braking halt.

Finally, avoid braking by avoiding congestion. Nothing consumes more gas at less gain than idling and accelerating in stop-and-go traffic.

One of those inspired by Gerdes is Tony Schaefer, founder of Chicago’s Prius Group (www.chicagopriusgroup.com), likeminded hybrid-lovers who meet periodically around the metropolitan area hear discussions on topics ranging from car parts to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to hypermiling.

Schaefer nicknamed his Prius “Priapus” in honor of a Greek god of fertility recognizable by his sizable loins. “If I had a bumper sticker, it’d say ‘What would Priapus drive?’” Schaefer said. “He’d drive a Prius. He had nothing to prove.”

Though he doesn’t claim to be a hard-core hypermiler, Schaefer’s motivations for saving gas are similar to Gerdes’. “I truly believe our national security is hindered by our addiction to other countries’ oil,” he said.

Schaefer added, “If you spend $300 each month at the bar, hopefully you think of cheaper ways to have fun. You don’t go to the bar and tell them their drinks are too expensive.”

Cheaper ways to drive will be the topic of Schaefer’s speech at July’s Hybrid Fest in Madison, Wis. In addition to the strategies already discussed, Schaefer said he will “liken driving a car to riding a bike. You don’t accelerate when you’re going downhill.”

Schaefer will also cheer on Gerdes as he defends his 20-mile, 180-miles-per-gallong title in the Hybrid Marathon. And although Schaefer allows Gerdes bragging rights, the reigning champ maintains a bigger purpose.

Gerdes said his greatest feat has been encouraging aspiring gas-savers, such as the time he took a young couple on the road and taught them how to score 127 miles per gallon on a 30-mile ride in their hybrid.

“It’s not bragging rights,” Gerdes said about his fantastic mileage. “It’s that there’s a pinnacle, and I want you guys to shoot for it ’cause it’ll save all of us.”