Feature With increasing fears over both global warming and rising oil prices, hypermiling is becoming big business.
For 20 years, Wayne Gerdes worked as an engineer in the nuclear industry. He readily admits he was not particularly obsessed with doing his bit to save the planet, but Gerdes took a radical turn after becoming worried about what he deemed the world's over-dependence on oil. In 2004, he coined the phrase "hypermiling", and marked the birth of what has since become a growing global trend. In its most simple terms, hypermiling involves drivers maximising the fuel economy of their cars.
With increasing fears over both global warming and rising oil prices, Gerdes argues that hypermiling is becoming big business and few, if any, are better at it than him. In May, Gerdes managed to travel nearly 2,400km - roughly the distance from Abu Dhabi to Cairo, the Egyptian capital - in a Ford Fusion Hybrid on just a solitary tank of petrol over the course of 69 hours. His achievement was all the more remarkable considering the Ford Fusion normally averages just 49 miles per gallon, or 4.8L/100km, and the fact that the record attempt took place in the traffic-addled US capital of Washington DC.
And Ford, which put Gerdes up to the task, is confident the achievement is a world record for a vehicle of its size, and even Gerdes admits he was surprised by the level of performance. "When Ford first mentioned it to me I thought 1,200 miles (1,913km) at best was achievable," says Gerdes. "This isn't a small car - it's a 3,700-pound, midsized car. But then they said they planned to do it in Washington DC, which is a shocker for traffic, so I thought it'd be tough.
"But we worked hard to get the right route. So we got to the 1,000-mile mark and we still had a third of a tank or so left so we just kept on going and going before finally running out of gas. It was amazing really." Gerdes, and his six-man team, which included Carl Edwards, the Nascar racer, eventually ground to a halt after 1,445.7 miles (2,326.63 km). The trick to the record, and hypermiling in general, lies in a raft of techniques that Gerdes has mastered.
For starters, the tyres were blown up to their maximum safety level for the attempt and all excess weight was taken off the car. In addition, no music was played and no air conditioning was used. And as for honing the driving technique of his team, most notably Edwards, who is not exactly used to green driving on the Nascar circuit, he hosted a clinic, passing on tips ranging from perfecting the way to maintaining an even throttle pressure to smooth braking.
"Actually, Carl Edwards is known for being the most fuel-efficient driver in Nascar plus he owns a Ford Fusion so it made him the ideal candidate," says Gerdes. "I insisted on being with him in the car initially to pass on the tips but he's the quickest learner I've ever come across. "We had a scan gauge to show miles per gallon and generally people get to about 70mpg at best but Carl was comfortably tipping 80 with regularity.
"I even got him to remove his shoes to get used to the sensitivity of the pedals, and I think he's learnt a lot. He said he could even take some of this stuff to the racetrack. "And what he did was even more impressive, as he was a bit smashed up from a racing accident when I saw him and he should probably have been in hospital." Aside from Gerdes' various record attempts - the furthest he has travelled on a single tank of petrol is 3,627km in a Honda Insight - there is a bigger target to his hypermiling ambitions.
He has his own website, www.cleanmpg.com, where he passes on hypermiling tips and where users swap stories of their fuel-saving exploits. He also runs clinics to pass on his tips. "I never set out to do this originally," he says. "I'm an engineer by trade and worked in the nuclear industry for 20 years. It's just something that I feel is more and more important in this day and age. "Two years ago, I committed myself to it full-time. Sure, I'm not earning the money I was before, but I'm doing something worthwhile."
Gerdes' mission is quite simple. He argues that everyone can take on board even the most minor hypermiling tips to improve their fuel economy. "There's a lot people can do," he says. "For example, I often sit in my car and see people race away from the lights only to screech to a halt at the next set of lights. Quite frankly, what's the point? You can do that a whole lot more economically." There are critics of Gerdes and his hypermiling, with some suggesting he can only achieve his record-breaking antics with illegal driving, such as drafting (basically riding close behind larger vehicles to slipstream) and driving through red lights.
"There's a lot of ignorance out there," he adds, "and that's frustrating. People just think it can't be possible when they see the distances we're talking about, but it's completely legitimate." And then there are the occasional critics on the road who have accused Gerdes of driving too slowly. "You get some people being (angry) at you for the way you're driving and there is some abuse," he says, "but I'm not driving too slow. I drive between the speed limits, and speed limits aren't there as a suggestion, it's the law.
"But most people normally see sense in the end. For example, at a set of lights, someone might charge past me, fly to the next set of lights which are of course red and we get there in the same time. You see them looking a bit embarrassed in their wing mirror realising what they've done. All I'm trying to do is change people's perceptions." The Gerdes catchphrase is that "hypermiling is being hyper aware" and, with that, he says he can ensure safer roads, less road rage and less accidents.
"There's a lot to hypermiling, but it's all about being aware of everyone around you," he says. "It's about thinking beforehand and having time, and most of the time people on the roads only ever think as far as the bumper in front of them. That's no way to drive. "For example, I get scared if I go over 65mph (104kph) on the freeway as at 70-75mph I don't think it's all that safe. People don't get it how unsafe cars can be and that you just need to be more aware when on the road rather than texting on your mobile phone or changing the CD in the car or whatever.
"This is a safety issue and about people being aware of oil use and oil prices. The fact that it has an environmental bonus as an aside is a plus, but I can't confess to that being an initial target." Gerdes has no immediate fresh record attempts, but knows he is something of a one-of-a-kind when it comes to record breaking. While most others aim to smash land-speed records, usually burning gallons of fuel at a time, Gerdes is aiming to do the exact opposite. And while it might not be as high octane and exciting, he says it is still having a global interest.
"There seems to have been an interest from everywhere, although it's perhaps less of an issue in the Middle East where petrol prices are a lot more affordable than in the US," he says. "Back in 2003, for example, when there was a sudden surge in diesel prices, there were a lot more truckers interested in trying to go their optimum speed to save fuel. "We're just extending that idea and seeing if we can make a bigger difference." firstname.lastname@example.org