Ecodriving: How Your Car is Training You to Drive More Efficiently, Without You Even Noticing

Back in 2011, a team at the University of California Riverside’s Centre for Environmental Research (‘CERT’) won a $1.2 million grant to study the concept known as ‘Eco-Driving’. To briefly summarise, they studied the effect a mixture of education and active feedback had on fuel efficiency, and discovered that the potent combination of teaching people how to improve their fuel economy and giving them feedback on their efficiency while driving is remarkably effective.

Your car is coaching you on driving efficiently -- and you probably don't even realise it.

Your car is coaching you on driving efficiently — and you probably don’t even realise it.

In fact, it seems people’s driving habits change rapidly when faced with their failings and, at least in the UK, when faced with the fact that tweaking their driving habits may gain them several extra miles per gallon — and save them a few quid in the process.

The gentle mocking of someone’s poor efficiency by a computer screen seems to be of vital importance.

The grant that University team won was the result of a CERT 2010 Fuel Economy Study that showed that a 6% increase in fuel economy was available, in town, just by the simple expedient of telling people to turn their cars off, accelerate gently and look after their vehicles. Most importantly, it proved that the best fuel efficiency gains happened when putting the all-important fuel economy or efficiency data in front of the driver on a display whilst they were driving.

In fact, the gentle mocking of someone’s poor efficiency by a computer screen (okay, that might not be quite how the screen works, but you get the gist) seems to be of vital importance. Displaying your poor fuel economy on a screen in the car is the equivalent of the fear of being told off by the teacher at school: it guilts you into behaving more appropriately.

The iMiEV's simple dash encourages you to drive economically

The Mitsubishi iMiEV’s simple dash encourages you to drive economically

As the dashboard gauges in cars have been increasingly replaced with screens, and the capabilities of those screens have improved, we’ve rapidly moved on from the simple MPG display to cute graphics. From the eco trees of the Nissan LEAF to the eco leaves and butterflies of Ford’s plug-in cars, the concept of gaming the driver to improve economy has become something of a standard trope in the automotive economy handbook.

Of course, it can’t be said that the early 2005 second-generation Toyota Prius hybrid we’ve got has any of these excitingly pretty displays. The screen looks remarkably crude when compared to more modern vehicles. But it is interesting to note that it has still have the desired effect. Between it and the iMiEV’s simple but effective Eco meter, my driving style has dramatically shifted.

OK. I’ll admit it: when driving the i-Miev, there’s a gleeful pleasure in watching that needle plunge into the ‘Charge’ side (and if I’m brutally honest, with it’s go-kart handling, stomping the accelerator for it’s off-the-line performance). Yet for the most part, keeping that needle hovering as near to the E of ‘Eco’ is now just habit. It means gentle take offs, and reading the road ahead well to avoid having to even press the brake.

Smooth is the order of the day and there’s an unexpected delight in trying to get home using as few bars of charge as possible.

I’ve let people who aren’t Morris Minor fans drive her and they come away smiling. I don’t know her top speed because she’s so thirsty that the fuel pump can’t keep up.

I should point out here that I don’t have a predilection for gentle, eco-concious driving, at least not historically. No, this comes from someone who used to thrash her cars witless. If I’m honest, those of you who aren’t into classics may not get how much of a change this is, but for those of you who are old-school car geeks let me tell you about my 1969 Morris Minor. I’ve owned her since before I left school, she’s been my daily driver for many years, and she’s currently off the road awaiting the next stage of her life: an all-electric, high-performance Morris Minor for the new millennium.

2010 iMiEV and a 1969 Morris Minor

She’s ready to become electric, but my Morris Minor isn’t stock right now. She isn’t your Nan’s shopping car.

Right now, in her pre-conversion state, she has a fast-road cam in a larger bore engine. She has a much bigger carb. She has shiny, shiny alloy wheels with grippy tyres and a different diff. I’ve let people who aren’t Morris Minor fans drive her and they come away smiling. I don’t know her top speed because she’s so thirsty that the fuel pump can’t keep up.

That’s my Minor.

And here I am, less than a few years since beginning to drive EVs regularly, and less than a year into Prius ownership, and I’m becoming someone who touches the accelerator like an angel. I can’t claim to be any kind of hypermiler.

Only for half a tank, once, did I manage to obtain a ridiculously happy-making 72MPG from our Prius (I tell you, when I ran into traffic on that journey I was quite upset). To be honest, the Prius usually hovers more around the 55-62 MPG mark.

Not exactly a hypermiler, Kate gets 55-60mpg out of the Gen 2 Prius

Not exactly a hypermiler, Kate gets around 60 MPG out of the Gen 2 Prius

But to look back at the change in my driving style, and the adaptations I make – I find this fascinating. No one has made me change, there’s not even a real financial need. The Prius’ll reliably return around 50MPG even if I drive normally (not, obviously, if I drive like a numpty), and the iMiEV is fine for most of our journeys whether I drive like a saint or a sinner.

It’s just that in front of me (more or less) is a screen telling me that I could do better, that I’m capable of more. It’s clearly not something that affects everyone, enough Prii storm past me on the motorway, perhaps because it doesn’t sport pretty trees, or gently growing leaves. But for me, even that average MPG gauge is enough to get me Eco-Driving.


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  • Surya

    I’ve long been a proponent of making the current fuel/energy use visible on the dashboard not an option but a permanent indicator in new cars.
    When I first got my Citroen C2, I set it so it would always show me my current fuel economy, and that allowed me to go from an average of 5.3L/100km to 4.4L/100km in a matter of months. Simply by learning how to use the car most efficiently. Most passengers told me I wasn’t a slow driver at all and wondered how I archived those numbers, so driving efficiently doesn’t always mean driving slow.
    Now I drive my ZOE and I always set it to display the current energy consumption. That doesn’t mean I never stomp the accelerator, but having it there is a very good way to urge you to watch your driving style. Regen is great, but I always avoid it when I can, because not regenning (coasting to slow down) is even more efficient than regenning and then having to put in a bit of energy at the end.

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