CHICAGO - On the hottest days of summer, Wayne Gerdes drives with his windows rolled up and the air conditioning off.
He crawls into stoplights at a few miles an hour, wears an "ice vest" (technical equipment used in nuclear power plants) to stay cool on long rides, parks in the isolated outskirts of mall lots and turns off the engine and coasts on major highways - all in the name of greater fuel efficiency.
His efforts have paid off. In the small but growing world of American hypermiling, in which top drivers compete for the best miles-per-gallon statistics, the 45-year-old Wadsworth resident with lightning reflexes and a laid-back country drawl is Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods rolled into one.
He so dominates his sport - achieving 59 miles per gallon in an ordinary Honda Accord and 127 miles per gallon in a Prius hybrid - that at Hybridfest Inc., the Madison, Wis., non-profit that runs the nation's biggest annual hypermiling contest in July, officials say he's often in a class by himself.
"We've even discussed, 'Maybe we need a Wayne class in the mpg competition,'" says Hybridfest treasurer Bill Robbins. "You'd have all the normal people competing, and then you'd have Wayne, who maybe just tries to beat his last year's numbers."
But Gerdes wants to be more than a novelty or a folk hero to the fuel-efficiency set.
At a time when Americans across the political spectrum are increasingly concerned about global warming, gas prices and foreign-oil dependence, the mild-mannered nuclear plant operator wants to be part of the solution. He wants to show that ordinary Americans can hypermile their way to better fuel efficiency: in the short run, a 30 percent improvement - say, from 20 miles per gallon to 26 - using just a few safe and simple tips.
In the long run, he envisions a nation where the average driver gets 45 miles per gallon through hypermiling, the purchase of more fuel-efficient cars and increased ownership of hybrid vehicles.
And, frustrated by what he sees as the media's tendency to sensationalize what he does by focusing on extreme techniques such as the practice of driving close behind 18-wheelers to benefit from the low-pressure zones they create, he wants me to serve as his human guinea pig. Gerdes actively warns against driving close behind 18-wheelers, calling the practice dangerous and saying he himself rarely engages in it.
The Wayne challenge is as follows: I am to drive my 2004 Honda Civic to the upscale suburban subdivision where Gerdes lives with his wife and two of their three children, and drive a 4-mile route of Gerdes' devising. He'll measure my fuel efficiency with a gauge he'll attach to my car.
Then he'll teach me the basics of hypermiling and send me out on the route again, with the fuel gauge recording my greater fuel-efficiency - or lack thereof.
On the day of the challenge, the sky is almost cloudless, temperatures are in the mid-80s and gas prices are hitting $3.50 a gallon. Gerdes exudes quiet confidence, which, under the circumstances, is impressive.
There's no question that the way you drive and maintain a car can improve your fuel efficiency - maybe by about 30 percent, according to Margo T. Oge, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Transportation and Air Quality.
But experts doubt whether the more advanced forms of hypermiling - the kind that could take my Civic to the 45 miles per gallon of which Gerdes says it is realistically capable - will ever catch on with the general population. "I don't think people, on an average, will be willing to undertake approaches that are impractical and unsafe," such as turning off the engine while the car is moving, Oge says.
There are also legal and safety barriers to advanced hypermiling practices: Illinois prohibits drivers from coasting in neutral (which is what hypermilers do to turn their engines off) and riding close behind other vehicles, according to Trooper Juan Valenzuela of the Illinois State Police; Valenzuela adds that it's dangerous to drive with your engine off.
I'm dismayed when, during my initial, untutored run of Gerdes' stop-and-go suburban course, my Civic (EPA 26 city/35 highway) gets only 24 miles per gallon, according to the reading on the fuel-efficiency gauge that Gerdes has hooked up to my car. But Gerdes, who looks a little like actor William Hurt, but bigger and burlier, with a sunburn and a baseball cap, just gets to work, measuring my tire pressure (too low) and checking my oil level (too high).
"And I hate to say this," he says, his eyes locking into mine, earnest and unblinking, as he kneels beside my flabby tire, "but it's not just for me; it's for our country. We've got an addiction to oil; CO2 emissions are out of control. We're giving dollars to our friends overseas (when we) buy oil, and they're buying bullets to shoot our guys (in Iraq)."
The turning point
Gerdes, a political independent, traces his quest for extraordinary fuel efficiency back to Sept. 11 when he turned on the TV in time to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center. "That was the turning point," he says, "and the reason why is (I realized that) we're giving dollars to people that want to kill us, and that (ticks) me off. Not many people put those two together, but to me it's so obvious.
"I guess what really ticks me off is when I see 'Save the Troops' on the back of a huge SUV."
Already familiar with basic eco-driving techniques from his days as a cash-strapped teenager, he started experimenting with his Nissan pickup, and then bought a Toyota Corolla (EPA 25 city/34 highway), with which he eventually achieved an average of 48 miles per gallon.
"I had to develop a lot of my own techniques, because nobody knew anything," says Gerdes, who estimates that there are 50 advanced hypermilers in America and a few thousand drivers who use at least some hypermiling techniques. His Web site, www.cleanMPG.com, has had 18 million hits so far this year.
During my first few seconds in a car driven by Gerdes, the great hypermiler is going so slowly - having put my Civic in neutral and with the engine off - that only a slight wave of motion sickness alerts me to the fact that we are moving at all. We coast down his driveway, into the street, past a stop sign and down another small slope at 7 miles per hour - all without turning on the engine.
"We're over 1,200 miles per gallon right now," he says, indicating his fuel-efficiency gauge, which is soaring because we are using no fuel. "By the time we hit the (next) stop sign, we should be over 2,400."
This is not to say that even a suburban ride with Gerdes lacks its moments of heart-stopping excitement. Insisting, correctly but counter-intuitively, that he is not required to stop at a complex mall intersection, Gerdes darts out in front of a car that apparently didn't study the signage as carefully as he did.
"That guy should've stopped for me. I had right of way!" he says.
He finishes the 4-mile course at 47 miles per gallon. Then, after a lecture and a tutorial on quiet country roads, it's my turn. Although the initial plan was to see if I could get a 30 percent improvement in fuel efficiency, Gerdes is clearly aiming higher.
A good start
I do pretty well on the initial coasting and accelerating leg of the journey, having learned, if not by any means mastered, the advanced hypermiling technique in which you turn off the engine while moving. With Gerdes cuing my every move, I brake and accelerate softly and steadily, coast into stoplights at low speeds and park at a high point in the Jewel lot so I can roll away without turning on my engine.
The trouble begins when we hit the nasty intersection at the mall, the one where Gerdes insists we have right of way. I brake to avoid hitting a blue minivan that doesn't stop at its stop sign, and get so flummoxed that I take a wrong turn. I come to my next required stop, in a Blockbuster lot, facing the wrong way, a move that Gerdes takes as his cue to get out of the hot car into the scorching sun and push.
By the time we're in the home stretch, Gerdes has fallen into the pattern of saying, "Go! Go! Go!" when I hesitate to accelerate and I've taken to saying, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" whenever there's a pause in the action.
But I'm amply rewarded when Gerdes reads my average miles per gallon off the gauge: 42. Gerdes reminds me that I'm in no way ready to do this kind of advanced hypermiling on my own, a position I heartily endorse, but he also returns my high-five and brushes off my apologies for my mistakes and acts of cowardice.
"You're in the top 10 drivers in the state," he says. "There are a million drivers on the road today in Illinois, and you are in the top 10."
Safe tips for saving fuel
We don't advocate that you drive like Wayne Gerdes - and neither does he. Trooper Juan Valenzuela of the Illinois State Police points out that, in Illinois, shifting a vehicle into neutral to let it coast with the engine off is prohibited, so don't try to improve your mileage by "gliding."
"Common sense is you should have your car running, because you know what? You've got power-assisted brakes, power steering," he adds.
But hypermilers routinely follow driving practices that are safe and legal for all of us, and these gas-saving tips passed muster with Valenzuela:
1. Obey speed limits, especially on highways.
2. Minimize braking and idling.
3. Check your oil level; overfilling is bad for fuel efficiency.
4. Accelerate and brake softly and smoothly.
5. Time stoplights, slowing down by letting up on the accelerator if the light is red so you don't have to stop.
6. Don't accelerate toward stoplights and signs.
7. Minimize use of air conditioning.
8. Plan trips for fewer stops and to eliminate unnecessary driving.
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