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How you drive can make your car greener

By Joshua Nichols, Staff writer
Published On: Oct 26 2011 02:33:40 PM CDT
Updated On: Nov 08 2013 09:25:52 AM CST
green vine growing over hybrid car hood


Whether you want to save a bit on gas or to help the environment, learning how to drive "greener" can come in handy.

"The key to EcoDriving is that anyone can do it, in any vehicle, and best of all, it's easy," said Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The alliance is a trade association of 11 car and light truck manufacturers, including the Big Three of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, along with others such as BMW, Volkswagen and Toyota.

The alliance sponsored an effort to encourage more drivers to take simple steps to improve their fuel efficiency and reduce their carbon footprints.

The EcoDrive effort aims to produce the highest mileage from every one of the roughly 245 million vehicles, regardless of size or age, in the U.S.

The EcoDrive website includes tips for greener driving, along with a calculator that lets visitors figure out their carbon dioxide emissions and a virtual road test to try out their new-found knowledge.

"It's time that we all begin taking the steps necessary to reduce our carbon footprint," McCurdy said.

Driver versus car

You won't get any argument from Gil Portalatin, hybrid propulsion system applications manager for Ford. Portalatin believes that great mileage comes from not the car itself, but from the driver.

And becoming a "greener" driver isn't that hard, he said.

"I watch people drive and waste gas every day," Portalatin said. "Most drivers don't pay attention to the flow of traffic. If you're in traffic, you know you're going to stop again, so anticipate that stop by easing off the accelerator pedal early and coasting as much as you can."

He also advocates driving with the terrain and going for a smooth ride. Since it takes more energy to climb a hill than to roll down the other side, it's OK to lose a few miles per hour while driving up a hill. That lost speed can be regained by coasting down the other side, he said.

"Some drivers will be better off just driving with their cruise control," he said.

Smooth driving

Cruise control plays a big part in EcoDriving. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that using cruise control for 10,000 of the miles a typical motorist drives in a year could save nearly $200 and more than 60 gallons of fuel.

But EcoDriving doesn't stop there. Like Portalatin's smooth driving suggestion, keeping a constant pace and not speeding will end up saving in the long run. Not exceeding 60 mph can improve mileage by up to 23 percent, McCurdy said. Most cars get the most efficient mileage figures between 45 and 55 miles per hour. Any jump to 65 mph significantly reduces fuel efficiency, while a further jump to 75 mph over long periods can result in an expensive return to the pumps.

That steady speed can also pay off when it comes to the bane of all commuters: traffic lights. Since they are often synchronized so that a motorist driving at a specific speed will pass through a series of green lights without stopping, a steady speed will help drivers avoid being stuck at red lights.

Some newer hybrid models even come with modes that can help you obtain maximum fuel efficiency with minimum effort, according to AAA.

A couple of manufacturers have gone a step farther and integrated visual cues into their instrument panel displays that help teach motorists how to drive more efficiently.

In the Ford Fusion hybrid, a plant grows branches and leaves when the car is driven in a fuel efficient manner and withers as economy goes down. The 2010 Honda Insight hybrid has a speedometer display that varies in color from blue to green as efficiency increases; it also offers guidance on braking techniques.

Stuck in traffic

If you do find yourself stuck at a long stop light, Craig Howie of AOL Auto suggests simply turning off the engine.

As Howie notes, several police departments have started prohibiting their officers from idling patrol cars at traffic stops and crime scenes. Regular drivers can also save by switching off the engine at long lights, when waiting in heavy traffic or when waiting to pick someone up.

An even better tip from Howie involves a little more work and planning. He suggests lightening the load your vehicle is hauling and combining trips.

"Clearing all that junk out of your car -- in some cases heavy junk like golf clubs, car parts or kids' toys -- can result in significant savings," he said. "The EPA estimates that for every 100 pounds of weight your car carries, fuel efficiency dips by 2 percent."

Starting and stopping for separate trips to the grocery store, salon and video store uses up more gas and is worse for the environment, Howie said. Vehicles emit more pollutants in the first minutes after startup, as their emissions systems haven't fully warmed and are functioning less efficiently.

But what about the car?

Not every green driving tip focuses on changing your driving habits. There are steps you can take with your vehicle that will help save you some green and the environment at the same time.

The website, a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, stresses the importance of keeping your engine properly tuned.

The site suggests that a properly-tuned engine can provide efficiency savings of 4 percent. Checking and replacing air filters provides another 10 percent and proper tire pressure 3.3 percent. Using a motor oil that says "energy conserving" on the API performance label can give you another 1 to 2 percent in efficiency savings.

And even when and how you fill up your car can play a part.

AAA suggests the best time to fill your car is at cooler temperatures. That's because gas fumes heat up at warmer temps and create ozone. AAA also recommends against topping off the tank, which can release gas fumes into the air, canceling the benefits of the gas pump's anti-pollution devices.

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