Hypermilers squeeze the most out of a gallon of gas

amead@herald-leader.comMay 23, 2009 

Robert Wyler was tooling along the interstate near Lexington on Thursday afternoon in his '86 Honda Civic with manual transmission, his speedometer pointing to 60, doing his part to lessen the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

The windows were rolled up for aerodynamics. The air conditioner didn't work, but Wyler wouldn't have been running it if it did.

Approaching Newtown Pike, he turned the ignition switch off (which you shouldn't try with an automatic). Without touching the brakes, he hit the exit at a speed that caused his passenger to hold on, and coasted most of the way to the traffic signal.

Wyler, 25, is a hypermiler, a person who uses various driving techniques to maximize gas mileage.

In a car that the EPA says should be getting a combined city/highway mileage of 28 miles per gallon, he's squeezing out 37.46.

"Hypermiling has been around forever, and you can see it in play in all sorts of different ways from NASCAR racing... to how you ride a bike by pedaling for a while and then coasting," said Benjamin Jones, a Dartmouth College senior who is a co-founder of the hypermiling Web site http://ecomodder.com.

Media interest in hypermiling reached a peak last summer when gas passed $4 a gallon, Jones said. But the practice hasn't gone away, and pump prices have been rising again this year.

"Gas prices are going up — there's no ifs, ands and buts about it," said Anthony Robertson, 22, a hypermiler who graduated last week from the University of Kentucky. "People need to realize that gas is going to be cheap when we're in a recession and expensive when we're not."

Wyler and Robertson are both engineers, but they have chosen radically different vehicles in their quest for fuel efficiency.

Wyler, who lives in Georgetown, parked his 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser (15 mpg) last year when he switched from a three-mile commute to the Toyota plant to a 25-mile drive to a defense contractor at Blue Grass Station in Fayette County.

He chose the old Honda — "a piece of crap" in his words — because it was cheap and built before cars were routinely loaded with energy-burning niceties. Not having power steering, for example, means he can cut the engine on the highway without losing the ability to steer. (He also has a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but was in the car on Thursday because he had to wear a tie to work that day).

Robertson used to drive a Chevrolet Tahoe, which was a huge gas hog. But his work as mechanical project manager for UK's solar car, Gato del Sol, got him interested in design and efficiency.

He bought a 2009 Toyota Camry hybrid. It's supposed to get 33 mpg in the city. His last tank of city driving came out to 44 mpg.

But, even with a nice new car, he is reluctant to turn on the air conditioner unless he's on the highway, and plans to get a set of those beaded seat covers that allow air circulation.

"I try never to use my air conditioning unless my girlfriend is in the car," he said. "Or my mom."

As different as their vehicles are, both follow some of the same hypermiling basics.

■ They don't park in front of a store, instead looking for a parking lot spot that is on a slight rise.

■ They ease away from a stop sign instead of flooring it, and coast up to the next one.

■ They drive slowly, especially on interstates. (Wyler said he used to drive 65, but other cars didn't notice that he was going slower than they were and kept almost hitting him. Since he's slowed to 60, they notice.)

■ They stay off the brake pedal as much as possible, because that just kills momentum that's going to take more gas to regain.

■ They let gravity help them speed up going down hill, then use that momentum to carry them at least part way up the next hill.

■ And they keep their tire air pressure at or above the recommended number.

Robertson recalled what happened when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama suggested proper tire inflation as an antidote to high gas prices.

"Everybody made fun of him, but actually that's a true statement," he said.

Some hypermilers make extensive modifications to their vehicles, including lowering them to a few inches off the pavement, to reduce air resistance.

Wyler has removed the passenger-side windshield wiper from his Honda, and plans to remove one of the side mirrors.

Robertson has covered a portion of the grille of his Toyota. The grille is designed for the air flow needed while driving and towing something in, say, hot Texas weather, he said, and he's not doing that.

Because he does not yet own the car, he hasn't made permanent changes. But he's planning on drilling into the body to add wheel covers, or fairings, like the ones he's seen in old photos of a 1948 Hudson.

Both men say they take some ribbing for their devotion to hypermiling.

"I will accelerate slowly, and my girlfriend likes to say I drive like a grandpa," Robertson said. "But at the same time if I come to a corner and don't have to stop, I fly around it" — he makes the eeerrrkkk sound of tires squealing — "so there's times I'm driving like a maniac."

Wyler said he pays so much attention to gas mileage because an engineer is supposed to make things work more efficiently.

"For personal reasons, I think we should try to reduce wherever we can," he said. "If we don't need that much fuel to move ourselves around, we shouldn't use it."

Email Andy Mead with your hypermiling methods at amead@herald-leader.com. Please include your name and a phone number where he can reach you.

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