LEIPZIG, GERMANY — If the facts be known, I’m a lead foot, and there’s nothing I like better than tearing through the gears in a high-revving car with a manual transmission. I shift up around 4,000-5,000 rpm, which is near the redline for some motors. And I have fun doing it!
But it turns out I’ve been driving all wrong. While in Germany for the International Transport Forum, I took a few minutes to learn the principles of “eco driving.” All these European entities (from the Energy Saving Trust to Ford of Europe and the National Association of Swedish Driving Schools) got together and articulated some basic principles:
1. Read the road as far ahead as possible and anticipate the flow of traffic
2. Act instead of react — increase your scope of action with an appropriate distance to use momentum. An increased safety distance equivalent of about three seconds to the car in front optimizes the options to balance speed fluctuations in traffic flow — enabling steady driving with constant speed.
3. Make maximum use of the vehicle’s momentum, when a) in gear; and b) in neutral.
It’s easy enough for them to say, but in practice eco-driving is kind of tough. They assigned me the charming Christianne Jordan, who lets people learn by mistakes. So she put me behind the wheel of a late-model five-speed Ford Focus and had me drive a mixed-route course around Leipzig. I thought I did reasonably well (that's me smiling after the drive at right). No pedestrians had to dive for cover — and I was within spitting distance of the speed limit.
Driving that way, I’d use up 9.8 liters per 100 kilometers. I dunno, sounds reasonable enough to me, especially because I didn’t have any point of reference as to what that meant in American. It turns out it translates to 24 mpg, which isn’t great in a compact with a manual transmission. Instructed in eco-driving, I tried again, this time barely tapping the accelerator, shifting at 2,000 rpm (that killed me; the engine seemed like it was lugging, even when it wasn’t), and using a lot of gliding and coasting.
I gotta say, it was boring as hell. It was like following grandma in an Oldsmobile. My score, though, was 7.2 liters per 100 kilometers — or 32.6 mpg. Not bad. Here, Christianne reinforces my lessons on video:
“Act instead of react!” Christianne barked at me. Well, she didn’t bark, she was actually quite nice. “Let the car roll in gear! Let the car roll in neutral! See that traffic light turning red? You can roll up to it in gear, which has the same effect as using the brakes.” That one I knew; I hardly ever use the brakes if I can help it — engine braking is my friend.
I wasn’t on the highway, but if I had been Christianne would have been wagging a finger and telling me to slow down. “Even on motorways, the time-saving potential [of driving fast] is quite low, and can be gained only at the expense of a drastically increased fuel consumption,” the eco-driving folks warn. Even rocking out from 62 mph to 75 mph “can induce an exponential increase in consumption.” In other words, you’ll burn a lot more gas.
Tarek Nazzal, a consultant to the German Road Safety Council, told me after my drive that fleet drivers are being put through the training all over Europe. Ten percent fuel savings is the norm. “Even if you’re a good driver, there is room for you to improve,” he said. “Modern cars are built to be driven this way.”
Maybe so. No matter how early I shifted, the Focus didn’t seem to mind. Now I’m home and we’ll see if eco-driving techniques take hold. Probably some of ‘em will. Love that coasting.
In case you were wondering, American roads are safer than they ever were, despite our crazed driving over here. In 2011, 32,310 people died in traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and that was the lowest number since 1949. I'd attribute this not so much to good driving but to the fact that cars have far more built-in passive safety devices than ever before. Ten airbags! No wonder people are walking away from crashes that would have killed them a decade ago.