Smart Gaug

Rising gas prices have dramatically increased Americans’ interest in tailoring their driving styles to save fuel. Now auto makers are rushing to help out.

On Wednesday Ford Motor Co. will unveil a new dashboard system that is supposed to help people modify the way they drive to get every last mile out of a gallon of gas.

Called “Smart Gauge,” it will debut next year in the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan gas-electric hybrid sedans. The interactive system provides four levels of information display, from a basic “Journey” mode to the content-rich “Empower” level that will offer the most detail on engine performance and feedback on how to improve fuel efficiency.

In the past, some cars and trucks had a rudimentary fuel-economy indicator, often a needle tied to how hard a driver hit the accelerator, said road-test editor Brian Moody. But now more people are becoming tuned into fuel economy as concerns grow over wildly fluctuating gas prices and as drivers become more environmentally conscious, Mr. Moody said.

The trend accelerated with the introduction of hybrid vehicles, especially the Toyota Prius, which offered a display screen that looked like a mini power plant, where rising and lowering bar graphs showed battery usage. And a conservation movement among drivers known as “hypermilers” is burgeoning, using bold driving techniques, from extremely slow speeds, to driving single-file behind tractor-trailer trucks to share the same pocket of air, a practice known as “drafting.”

Nancy Gioia, Ford’s director of hybrid-vehicle programs, said in an interview Monday that the new Smart Gauge system will act as a friendly teacher, offering kudos to those who change their driving behavior to improve fuel economy. “We tried to create the ultimate coach, and good coaches are the people that don’t point out the errors all the time,” Ms. Gioia said. “When you get it right, they say ‘Well done, do that again.”‘

In one of the two LCD screens on either side of the speedometer, bright green leaves will indicate how fuel-efficient the driver is. “You don’t have to count the leaves,” Ms. Gioia said. “But if you’re in a forest of leaves, you’ll know you’re doing well.”

Thanks to other advances, the Fusion and Milan hybrids will be able to operate longer at higher speeds in electric mode — up to 47 mph in pure electric mode, or about twice as fast as some competitors, according to the Dearborn, Mich., auto maker. Ford says the driving range on a single tank of gas on city streets is expected to be more than 700 miles.

Ms. Gioia at Ford said that the auto maker sought to provide a graduated level of information to drivers in order to satisfy both the Luddite and the techno-enthusiast among its customers.

The auto maker also scaled back the amount of information it offered to drivers after discovering during testing that the overstuffed display could pose a safety hazard.

At General Motors, spokesman Roger Clark said the auto maker’s Tahoe SUV hybrid has a detailed display screen for fuel consumption. Many of its current models offer more basic information, including instantaneous and average fuel economy. In some vehicles, Mr. Clark said, an active fuel-management mode allows the driver to run on half the vehicle’s eight cylinders.

Wayne Gerdes, a pioneer in the hypermiling movement who runs the Web site, said Honda is at the top of auto makers when it comes to displaying fuel consumption. He said he has not yet seen the new Ford display to be introduced today.

The Honda Insight, according to Mr. Gerdes, has a clear bar graph showing fuel consumption from 0 to 150 mpg and four levels of average-fuel-consumption display. Driving one in May, Mr. Gerdes said he achieved 213 miles per gallon at the World Fuel Economy Championship in Elkhart, Ind.

He also singled out the Acura MDX, which increases the width of the bars on the fuel-economy display for an easy-to-read indication of driving performance. One of the best features, he said, is a lifetime-fuel-economy gauge, giving a used-car buyer a unique window into how the vehicles were driven previously.

That feature is not available on the new Ford hybrid sedans, Ms. Gioia said.

“It’s an accountability thing,” said Mr. Gerdes, who lives in northern Illinois between Chicago and Milwaukee, Wis. “Because gas has been cheap for so long, we didn’t have to be accountable.”

For customers without the fuel-economy display, an aftermarket for gauges has cropped up in recent years.

Joey Snyder, marketing manager at Linear-Logic of Mesa, Ariz., said that sales of the company’s Scan Gauge II rocketed 300% between April and July this year as gas crested above $4 a gallon.

wondering… when you crash does it say “poor baby”


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