x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fiat's eco:Drive offers the chance of learning a greener way to get around

The Italian firm provides software aimed at making those behind the wheel of its cars more environmentally friendly.

Your driving information is saved on a USB.
Your driving information is saved on a USB.

I have always considered myself green. I recycle, I carbon offset my flights and I've even planted a tree or two. But, according to Fiat, I am anything but. In short, I'm a bit of a gas guzzler at the wheel. The Italian firm already boasts reasonably green credentials with fuel-sipping creations such as the Fiat 500, but they have taken things a step further with software aimed at making those behind the wheel of its cars more environmentally friendly.

Known as eco:Drive, the system is simple and easy to use - even a technophobe like myself was able to master its easy steps. First, you need a Fiat. Then, you have to go onto Fiat's website and download the software, which takes no more than a few minutes and is free. Next, you plug a USB thumbdrive into your computer and then duly plug this into the car. Somewhat alarmingly, as you first do this, the car - in my case, the new 500 model in a slightly feminine powder blue on loan from Fiat - speaks to you, telling you when the eco:Drive is installed and the test into your green credentials can begin.

The one stipulation Fiat has is to drive as you normally would, which is easier said than done. It's bizarre, but knowing that your driving is under scrutiny - even by a car - can have an unnerving ability to make you drive as though your driving instructor has come back to haunt you and is sitting quietly in the passenger seat. But I tried from the outset to obey Fiat's commands and drove as I have done for the last 16 years. To my mind, I am obviously a brilliant driver and, given the chance, I'm sure I would have been the next Jenson Button. The reality is clearly very different if my wife's input alongside me over the years is anything to go by.

"Not so jerky, do you always have to be in such a rush? Stop being so aggressive, how fast are you going?" are the usual reminders and queries in my ear. According to eco:Drive she might well have a point, though I'd rather she didn't know that. The way eco:Drive works is that, for five days, you drive your Fiat as you always have done with the USB thumbdrive plugged in. I tried to mix my journeys from long trips to the more regular short commutes.

At the end of that session came the day of reckoning. For some reason, I felt nervous, like I was expecting the outcome of my driving test all over again. Out came the USB thumbdrive from my Fiat 500 and in it went into my laptop. For those of you aiming to take the test, the important bit here is your average eco:Index rating. In my case, it's 58. The highest achievable is 100, so it would be fair to say I could and should drive a lot greener.

Somewhat bizarrely, though, laid out in front of me is every journey I made over the last five days; every time I have hit the accelerator, changed gear or even come to a standstill at traffic lights. Laid bare on my computer screen is my every nuance as a driver, and it does not entirely make for pleasant reading. Much like a hotel, there are star ratings for my driving aspects, with a highest rating of five stars. Needless to say, I do not get remotely close to that high mark. My acceleration is a woeful two, my deceleration a 2.5, a figure matched by my gear changes. Only with my speed do I manage to achieve a high of three stars.

I have little else to gauge this against - being the first person I have known to take the eco:Drive test - but in any walk of life, an average of 2.5 out of a possible five stars is not good. Thankfully, all is not lost. Eco:Drive gives me a polite talking to with some computer tutorials aimed at showing me how best to hit either the accelerator or the brake on future journeys. These online lessons are elementary but, at the same time, avoid preaching at you like you are a dimwit.

Should you take the test, your own information is fed into here and you can see at every T-junction or freeway where you may or may not have gone wrong and, more crucially, where and how you can be greener. Some of the advice seems a little silly on the surface - to cure my accelerator-heavy behaviour, I am told to envisage an egg under the pedal. It's a stupid place to keep an egg, but my competitive streak drastically wants to improve my eco:Index rating of 58, so I am game.

Returning to the car with the USB thumbdrive once again plugged in, it's not quite like you are driving for the first time but, now more than ever during this test, there is a sense that you are being watched. Perhaps ambitiously, I have set myself the target of achieving an eco:Index of 70. I have no idea whether this is achievable or not, but I'll give it a go. I instantly feel like I've improved. Being quick on the throttle is not an easy habit to immediately remove from your driving repertoire.

But I try to be more ginger with it, making my gear changes just as the software had advised me and using engine braking wherever possible to slow me down rather than being so trigger happy with the brake. For one, my wife is happier about the new approach. "I wish you'd done this test years ago," I am somewhat pithily told. Annoying as the remark is, she's probably right. After two more days at the wheel, out comes the USB thumbdrive once more and, confidently I await my new eco:Index reading. Up flashes on the screen the number 73, and I'm giddy with excitement. I could still do better, but it is a marked improvement. Added to my new score, I have even managed a four-star rating on my speed.

So what does this mean in real terms of fuel consumption? In effect, just a week with eco:Drive means that I would save £5 (Dh28) a week on petrol, money perhaps that could be spent on, say, a driving course to make me the next Jenson Button. The other plus is that my C02 emissions are also drastically improved, making me more environmentally friendly in the process. I've returned to my usual drive, a Volkswagen, with no indication of whether I am as environmentally friendly as I was for those few days at the wheel of the Fiat 500.

Perhaps the best person to gauge this is my wife, as we head off on a long journey to see the in-laws. According to her, I'm slightly back to my old ways. Not as bad as before, I'm told, but the week of my wife being impressed by my driving appears to be over. I clearly need VW to come up with an eco:Drive of their own. motoring@thenational.ae