LOCALLY GROWN: Want to get more than 50 miles per gallon without buying a hybrid?

Friday, August 6, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:21 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 7, 2010

We’ve all been there. Running a few minutes late for an important meeting and feeling that every second counts. Slamming down the gas pedal is empowering. We feel we’re taking charge of the situation and making up time.

In reality, we’re wasting gas, increasing emissions, endangering ourselves and anyone else on the road, and not even accomplishing the goal of jack rabbit driving — saving time. According to a study by, an automotive education site, jack rabbit starts and hard-brake stops only reduce travel time by 4 percent. That’s barely more than one minute for a 30-minute trip.

To put the theory to the test in Columbia, I drove my wife to work Wednesday.

We live near the corner of West Blvd and Worley Street, and my wife works on the southeast side of town near the AC exit. We took West Blvd to Stadium, headed east and then turned south on Old 63. From our driveway to her office is about 7 miles.

On one route, I rocketed from stops (as much as a 7-year-old Nissan Sentra can rocket), braked at the last minute for stoplights and signs and exceeded the speed limit by about 10 miles per hour.

The second time around, I coasted into stoplights and stop signs trying to minimize brake use, crept away from stops and rarely exceeded the speed limit.

How much time did I save zipping around, nearly burning rubber as I took off from intersections, reliving the day I got my license? Ten seconds. That’s hardly worth the extra mental stress, wear on our car, or the 25 percent or worse decline I experienced in fuel economy.

The simple lesson that’s difficult to remember—slow down, and you’ll still get there at the same time. “Until you’re ready to drive differently everything else is moot,” said Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at

A new breed of drivers are doing just that and breaking records for fuel economy. They’re called hypermilers, and that person you’ve been stuck behind on the highway driving 55 might not be an “experienced” driver, but a hypermiler striving to squeeze efficiency out of every ounce of fuel.

Wayne Gerdes is one the leaders in the quest for fuel efficiency, and he started an online forum,, dedicated to improving fuel economy and reducing emissions for any and all vehicles. Gerdes consistently gets about 60 miles to the gallon in a nonhybrid 2005 Accord.

You can try hypermiling tips, but some throw comfort to the wayside. Hypermilers remove seats, radios and pretty much anything not connected to the operation of the car. They also drive with the windows up and the air conditioning off, and some air-seal the gaps in the front of the car.  

Some of the more extreme and potentially dangerous techniques are removing side mirrors for greater aerodynamic performance, and drafting semis on the highway, similar to the way NASCAR drivers draft each other on the track.

I find my mirrors pretty useful on the highway and for backing up, and turning off the engine to coast brings back bad memories of my steering locking up on my Tornado when the engine failed, so I’m passing on those fuel-saving tips.  

But many of the techniques are easy, practical and won’t slow you down or infringe on your comfort. My favorite for around town is the power of the coast. As soon as you see a yellow or red light or stop sign, take your foot off the accelerator and ease your way to the intersection. Keep your tires inflated and your car well-maintained. Inflating 5 pounds above the manufacture's suggestion is safe and will help increase mileage, according to Reed.

Get the junk and other heavy items out of the trunk too, but don't expect to see huge gains when you remove the Kleenex box.

Planning your trips to avoid stoplights and stop signs is much more important than agonizing over weight. If you think of every time you brake as wasted energy, and thus wasted fuel, you can become a more efficient driver with more cash in your pocket too, Reed said.

If you hone your hypermiling skills, you can test your merit at the annual Green Drive Expo MPG Challenge. Even the 2009 non-hybrid category winner achieved 65 mpg, more than 140 percent above the EPA estimate for his 1991 Honda CRX. Missouri wasn’t represented among the winners, so here’s a call to car glory, although not exactly Carl Edwards-style.

To really save gas and cut your greenhouse gas emissions, try driving less.

“About 50 percent of car trips in America are less than 2 miles and include one person,” said Gina Overshiner, who is organizing the No Car, Low Car and Whoa! Car Challenge for PedNet.

This September’s program is the fifth annual No Car, Low Car and Whoa! Car Challenge. The program aims to get people out of their cars on their daily commutes and to promote the idea of the car as an option, not a necessity. Last year, more than 80 Columbians signed up for the challenge. 

There are four levels of participation. I’ve got a weekend trip planned in September, so I committed to the Low Car category, which affords me one trip in a car for the month.

"No car" is for the die-hards, who won’t ride in a car for the entire month for any reason. They can, however, take public transport such as buses, trains and planes. "Whoa! car" folks can drive once per week, and business traveler participants get a pass for all work-related travel, but they must forgo their vehicles for any personal trips.

Spandex is not required whether you’re biking, walking or wheeling to your destinations. All participants will receive a hot-pink card with freebies, including bus fare for the month and discounts at local businesses. Check the PedNet website for a complete list of the events planned for the month.

Overshiner said that by making the commitment, participants learn to overcome challenges, such as weather. “After riding in the rain a few times, people realize it’s not that big of a deal,” she said.

See you in the slow lane.

Michael Burden is a journalism graduate student at MU, the MU campus representative for the Peace Corps and an amateur hypermiler.



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Ellis Smith August 6, 2010 | 6:26 a.m.

There's a line - perhaps thin - between improving fuel consumption and being just plain silly or even dangerous. Removing outside mirrors? Not only is that unsafe but it's illegal. Driving with the air conditioning off and the windows up? Not practical when outside ambient temperature is high (and doing so might cause some drivers to nod off to sleep).

Some realistic approaches:

Keep your engine in tune and change the air filter regularly.

In summer, set your air conditioner such that it cools you, but no lower than absolutely necessary. The cooler you make it, the more that air compressor has to work. (And where does the compressor get its energy?)

One of the most important: check and maintain proper tire pressures. BIG factor in fuel mileage! (It also helps improve tire life.)

If driving on the highway, stay AT LEAST 5 mph below the posted speed limit. If you have cruise control, that is easy to do. (You will reach your destination nearly as soon as if you drive at or over the speed limit.)

Don't have anything in the trunk of a sedan or back of a SUV vehicle that doesn't need to be there; otherwise, you are using fuel to haul dead weight.

If we're going to take this "more than 50 mpg" fetish to its logical or illogical extreme, forget motor fuel. Use solar power and you will have a non-polluting vehicle that can reach speeds of 100 mph! Race-winning examples can be found by traveling 95 miles south to the campus of MS&T*. But is there a down side? You bet! No air conditioning, no roll up windows, no doors, not suitable or safe for street or highway use, only seats one person, and there's no place to stow groceries after you buy them at the store, It does have stop lights and turn signals but no lights for night driving (and is never driven at night). This could put a crimp in one's social activities!

*- MS&T could probably be induced to sell one. They've donated at least one winning car to a museum. They run $200,000 new, but you could get a bargain on a used model.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking August 7, 2010 | 3:28 p.m.

Here's another biggie for mileage - drive a car with a manual transmission. Torque converters in automatic transmissions are very inefficient (even today, especially in American cars) and waste a LOT of fuel. A car with a manual transmission can save 3-10 mpg over a comparable model with an automatic.

Plus it might make it harder to use a cell phone, or text, while driving. So much the better.


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