Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Less is more when it comes to burning gasoline and preserving California's environment. Burning less fuel means there's less pollution in the air and more money in a driver's pocket. However, a team of California researchers thinks the key to less, is actually more.
If drivers could see how much fuel they're burning, would they drive more carefully? That's a question some researchers at UC Riverside are asking.
More information could be the key to saving a lot of money. Cars in the state drink more than a billion gallons of gas every month. As California's 27-million registered vehicles are burning up fuel, they're also pumping out dangerous pollutants that create smog and other hazardous clouds.
It is an equation University of California Riverside researcher Matt Barth wants to help change. Barth thinks the key is changing how California drivers get from point A to point B. European drivers have dealt with high fuel prices for decades and they're much better at employing fuel-sipping driving strategies.
"That's right," said Barth. "When people get their driver's license, they actually go through training about how to drive gently and to do these different things. They're just much more aware of it, there are just more programs available for them to sort of learn these habits, learn these behaviors and then use them in everyday life."
Barth hopes technology can help kick-start change in the United States.
He outfitted an ordinary Nissan Altima with some extraordinary equipment. The roof rack holds sophisticated telemetry devices capable of tracking the car's movements within meters. Computers in the trunk stay in constant contact with the car's onboard computers and servers at his lab. The navigation system allows drivers to pick routes based on time, fuel efficiency or the amount of pollution a trip generates.
Colleague and engineer Kanok Boriboonsomin demonstrates how the equipment works. He points to a small white box mounted on the car's dash.
"The MPG scale on the left-hand side of the screen is showing zero with the color red and that is because we're not moving," said Boriboonsomin. "Now when we take off, the screen will start to show different numbers. Different colors. Based on the real-time fuel consumption."
The idea is simple. Show drivers how much fuel they're using as they drive and they'll make changes that will reduce consumption.
"When the gas price is high and people are concerned about the fuel cost, then they may pay more attention to eco-driving practices," said Boriboonsomin.
The initial results with eco-devices in cars are promising. A study of 20 drivers in the Riverside area found the fuel consumption gauge helped improve gas mileage by six percent on city streets during daily commutes. That means a $50 weekly gas bill would only cost $47. That's equivalent to a tank and a half of gas over the course of a year. Researcher Matt Barth says he thinks there are even more savings possible.
"I think we can squeeze out maybe 10 to 15 percent if we do these advance algorithms, the ones that say, 'hey, we have traffic ahead of us, we should probably take a different route.' Or maybe something where rather than entering in to this stop and go maybe to keep a constant speed. That's going to be a pretty big savings there," said Barth.
Technology may be an important part of the move toward more eco-friendly habits, but the driver is the key. And changing consumer behavior is difficult.
"Anything that we can do to help people save fuel and be more environmentally conscious is a good thing," said San Diego State University Marketing professor Michael Belch. "It's not going to be as easy as saying I'm going to put this on your car now, you're going to change your buying behavior, your purchasing behavior. Its just not that simple."
The cost is frequently a catalyst for short-term behavior change, said Belch. Three years ago, when gas prices climbed above $4.60 a gallon, people drove less, bought more fuel-efficient cars, and used public transportation. When prices came back down, Belch said the economic incentive disappeared and the old fuel sucking habits returned.