Sure, you can save fuel by making lighter cars and more efficient engines or by adding new batteries, but what if fuel economy could be boosted just by changing the bad habits of drivers? That’s exactly what researchers at the University of California, Riverside’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CERT) are working to do. Using a $1.2 million grant from the Department of Energy, the group of scientists is finding ways to change our behavior when we’re in the driver’s seat to maximize our mileage and improve our fuel efficiency by as much as 30 percent. It may seem easy, but we all know that old habits die hard.

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Lead researcher Kanok Boriboonsomsin says the first stage of the study is to examine how GPS systems can help determine fuel efficient routes and how “infotainment” systems can provide real-time feedback without distracting drivers. The key is, though, that drivers would have to listen to the feedback and adjust their driving accordingly. By examining and testing these systems, the CERT researchers want to create the best system that emphasizes fuel efficiency but isn’t annoying, a particularly important point because no one listens to someone bossing them around.

The CERT team isn’t the first to attempt to change drivers’ behavior in order to improve fuel efficiency, but they are the first to show that when provided with real-time feedback about their mileage, drivers instantly want to alter their driving to save fuel. CERT found that drivers reduced their fuel consumption by 6 percent by doing simple things like coasting to stop lights and laying off the gas while accelerating.

Many new vehicles, including almost every hybrid and EV, are already equipped with a system that gives drivers info about their fuel economy. “Even though our cars are fuel efficient, we don’t want that to stop at the factory,” said Fiat brand manager Andrew Waterhouse to CNN. “We want people to continue to be mindful of how they’re driving and how to improve their driving.”

Boriboonsomsin says that a large part of their research will focus on GPS systems finding the most fuel efficient routes. Instead of a system telling drivers what not to do (i.e. “Do not accelerate to save fuel”), the ideal system would relay helpful real-time tips in a positive way, like “make a right to avoid unnecessary idling at a stoplight.” Surprisingly, this type of positive encouragement is missing in most driver information systems.

Just like we thrive off of positive feedback from bosses, teachers, and parents, CERT researchers know that we would thrive off of positive feedback from our cars. So really, engineers don’t need to drastically change our cars, they just need to create a system so that our cars can change us.


Lead image © Timo Newton-Syms via Creative Commons