The Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) finished up its sixth annual EcoRun in Quebec City late last month, a showcase of the newest and brightest “eco” vehicles on the market, be they hybrid, electric, fuel cell, or just plain fuel-sipping engine tech-equipped.
At the dinner at the run’s end, the 19 participating AJAC journalists celebrated and waited to hear who had won the best fuel economy competition, a.k.a. the “Green Jersey” award. The presenter boomed out that this year’s winner was Wade Ozeroff, an Edmonton-based journalist.
“And in second place” – here the presenter paused, furrowed his brow, then continued – “and in second place, though it’s hard to believe, is Howard Elmer.”
Yes! The truck writer who loves all things big, burly, and diesel had beat out 17 other AJAC writers, despite my heavy metal leanings. Little did they know driving trucks and towing heavy trailers has taught me well—yeah, I know how to drive to conserve fuel. I surprised them (and, I admit, myself just a little).
This part of the annual EcoRun had started as a friendly contest among the auto writers as a side bet that first year—bragging rights went to whoever could record the lowest overall fuel consumption over the two days of testing. It was fun, but after six years this award has now become a highlight of the event, for a very specific reason.
Even in year one we noticed almost every single driver – never mind the winner – had beat the average EnerGuide fuel consumption numbers the government assigns to all new vehicles in Canada. The same thing happened in year two. And three.
It was an awakening for many of us. Like much of the public, we had become accustomed to dismissing those black-and-white EnerGuide window stickers as wrong, not based in reality, optimistic, unachievable government mumbo-jumbo fuel ratings. How wrong we were.
We were amazed—we were all driving already highly efficient cars, and yet somehow we were still beating the government numbers. How could that be? And where do those numbers come from anyway?
Those EnerGuide stickers have been around since 1980. Vehicle manufacturers, Natural Resources Canada, and Transport Canada work together to calculate fuel economy using a standardized methodology—in other words, computers and a dynamometer.
At the test laboratory in Ottawa, a vehicle is mounted on a two-wheel chassis dynamometer to simulate on-road driving. The computer that controls the test is pre-programmed to take into account the particular characteristics of the test vehicle. Each test starts with “the City Course,” a simulated 12-km trip during which the average speed is 32 km/h. During the trip the vehicle is halted 18 times to represent traffic lights, and the test takes 23 minutes to complete.
It idles for four minutes, and the highest speed it reaches on a stretch is a few moments at 81 km/h. A measurement device on the fuel line records the amount of fuel consumed.
The second part of each test is the “Highway Course,” a simulated 16-km trip with an average speed of 77 km/h. The top speed during this test hits just 97 km/h during the 13 minutes it runs. There are no stops included and the vehicle is tested from a hot start.
That’s it. The fuel numbers determined from this test adorn those window stickers—the same ones most Canadians can’t seem to beat.
So how did the truck guy beat them? Well, let’s start with the obvious. I did not speed. Speed kills fuel economy—most people know that. Want to save fuel? Drive at the posted limit.
Past this, the two biggest fuel-wasters are acceleration and braking. By accelerating slowly and steadily, you can halve your fuel usage getting to cruising speed. The act of braking itself, on the other hand, has nothing to do with fuel—but how often you brake does. If you’re slowing your vehicle down, it follows you must speed it up again.
The key example of this is congested traffic. Every time you stop and start, you burn excess fuel. However, if you leave a gap in traffic, coast, accelerate gently, and refrain from using the brakes, your fuel consumption drops right down.
You have to realize even steering has an effect on fuel consumption. Practice driving smoothly: small steering inputs, gentle turns, light on the gas, light on the brake, lots of coasting. Let the energy you’ve already built up in the vehicle work for you, and don’t waste it braking. Smooth driving doesn’t just save fuel, either; any race car driver will tell you the fastest way around a race track is to be smooth as possible.
Other places to avoid using brakes (unless you’re about to hit a moose) is when going downhill (let your speed build so it will carry you up the next hill); on long off-ramps (get off the gas early and practice coasting all the way to a stop); and when going through corners (if you’re driving at the correct speed, you never have to brake in a corner).
But if I had to pick one key trait that saves fuel and that all drivers should exercise anyway, it’s attention. Pay attention to the road, traffic, weather, and your car. Look far ahead of the vehicle, watch what other motorists are doing, and anticipate what’s coming.
That’s how to best manage your drive and save a few bucks in fuel while you are at it. Oh, yeah—and never underestimate the truck guy.