As automakers strive to increase the fuel economy of their vehicles, a growing number of them are outfitting their vehicles with so-called eco-gauges that provide real-time feedback on how efficiently you’re driving. The goal is to change driver behavior toward more-responsible driving.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the gauges, which you’ll find in cars like the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf, work. We experienced this with the engaging, intuitive SmartGauge display (shown above) in the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, a system that turned hypermiling into a game and challenged us to eke out every last mile from a gallon of gas.
Although some studies have shown that next-gen dashboard displays make us more-efficient drivers, none of them has created a baseline of driver behavior from which to truly compare the changes. Researchers at University of California campuses at Berkeley, Riverside and Davis have launched a study to do just that. They want to see how much drivers change their behavior in the face of instant feedback on the efficiency of their driving habits.
“This is the first U.S. study on eco-driving that establishes a baseline, so that the impact of the device feedback on driving behavior can be measured,” said lead researcher Susan Shaheen.
Eco-driving is efficiency-conscious driving, something most of us know as hypermiling. It refers to changing specific behavior to minimize fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
The eight-month study will include approximately 30 drivers. Their vehicles will be outfitted with Eco-Way devices that provide instant real-time feedback on their driving behavior. The gadgets will allow the researchers and drivers to monitor cumulative data over week-long periods.
To establish a baseline for the study, the gadgets will be covered for the first part of the study so the drivers have no idea how they’re doing. Once that’s done, the devices will be uncovered for the remainder of the study. This is key, because an earlier study by UC Riverside found eco-gauges led to a 6 percent jump in fuel economy (.pdf) around town and a 1 percent increase on the highway, but it did not include a baseline for comparison.
“We already know that the technology works,” Jim Disanto, president of Earthrise Technology, said. The company makes the eco-driving hardware and software and is subsidizing the research. “We are interested in quantifying just how much it works.”
If the research shows eco-gauges work, the technology could become far more common. Transportation accounts for more than 27 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Anything that can help reduce that as automakers are forced to meet more-stringent fuel-economy standards almost certainly will be embraced by the industry.
Shaheen said eco-driving can be implemented immediately, at little or no cost to consumers and with no major investments in transportation infrastructure.
Studies in Europe and Japan show eco-driving could reduce fuel consumption by an average of 5 to 25 percent. The studies also showed big gains in fuel economy and cuts in CO2 emissions, when coupled with eco-driving classes.
The research is being conducted by the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center, where Shaheen is a co-director. Researchers expect to publish the results next year.
Photo: The SmartGuage eco-driving display used in the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid./Ford