Some years ago, I drove the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which was a brand-new model at the time. Ford’s reps made a big deal about its new instrument cluster display, which featured a number of empty tree branches. Driving efficiently would cause leaves to “grow” on them, and if your foot was light enough, you could amass a pretty lush growth of green.

I scoffed. Who on earth would fall for such an infantile gimmick? It’d be like adult drivers collecting the equivalent of schoolchildren’s gold stars. And yet, when those first little buds started to unfurl, I couldn’t resist. I started monitoring my driving. I made sure I was light on the throttle, and I coasted as much as I could. I actually got a little pissy when someone cut me off, and my hard braking caused a leaf to fall off. I grew this forest, buddy, and you just screwed it up!

Needless to say, I scoff no more. Of course I’m familiar with the old adage about getting more with a carrot than a stick, but I didn’t realize it would work as well as it did. And while it’s inevitable that it won’t work for everyone, there have to be enough people out there for whom it does.

While I understand the need for regulation—because no corporation ever does anything if it isn’t either required of them, or it makes them money—it’s always bugged me that automakers spend billions of dollars to squeeze more distance out of each litre of fuel, and then they hand these vehicles over to drivers who think they’re in NASCAR. We could collectively save hundreds of millions of litres of fuel every year, without investing a dollar in research or buying a single hybrid, just by improving our driving habits.

Unfortunately, while you can require an automaker to meet fuel economy targets, you can’t regulate drivers to do the same. The only way it could possibly happen would be with carrots, starting with putting these types of electronic “coaches” into even more vehicles, not just hybrid and electric ones.

I’m also thinking out loud about the future, and some of the potential possibilities. Cars can already monitor fuel consumption, and manufacturers are working on wireless communication between vehicles and infrastructure. Vehicles will be able to “warn” each other to avoid collisions, while parking garages will guide cars straight to empty spaces.

So what about taking that further? A car might “talk” to the gas station pump, which will discount a few cents per litre to drivers whose efficiency percentage dips sufficiently below the car’s published consumption. A driver might get a green light to enter the HOV lane, even if he doesn’t have the required number of people in the car, or pay a lower price on toll roads.

The car might be able to reserve prime parking spots, access lightly-travelled alternate routes that are closed to leadfoots during rush hour, or get a break on congestion fees in cities that charge them. The possibilities could be endless as the infrastructure matures…and it could all start with a single virtual leaf that’s growing in the dash.