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Five Tech Innovations That Can Keep Your Car From Burning So Much Gas

Yes, gas is cheap, but car makers are still facing ambitious goals to make vehicles way more fuel efficient

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As downward spirals go, the plummeting cost of gas has been something to behold. Last week, the national average hit $1.80 per gallon, the lowest it’s been in almost seven years and about half of what it was as recently as July 2014.  

That’s all good, right? It means the typical American has more money to save or to spend on other things. All true, but some downsides are already apparent. It's clearly hurting the once booming oil production in the U.S., resulting in less spending on building wells and other infrastructure, and less money spilling over to all the businesses tied into oil operations. 

And, there’s another potential consequence that’s not getting as much attention, but one that could have a serious impact on what’s often seen as the Obama Administration’s greatest environmental achievement—the 2011 agreement with major automakers to raise the energy efficiency of car and trucks to an average of almost 55 miles per gallon by 2025.

All seemed to be on track for a few years. The fuel efficiency of new cars sold rose steadily from an average of 23.5 miles per gallon (mpg) in early 2012 to 25.8 mpg in late summer 2014. But then, that number began dropping, until it actually fell below 25 mpg this past December.

Return of the guzzler

The reason was simple. With fuel prices sliding downward, gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks were hot again. Car companies realized that while this would inevitably make it harder to reach those long-term fuel efficiency goals, it was also very good for their bottom lines. SUVs and trucks are the big moneymakers.

The cost of gas is expected to stay low for a while, and even if it starts climbing again, AAA, according to a recent report, doesn’t expect the nationwide average to go above $3 a gallon this year.

All of this raises a big question: Given how much the low gas prices are boosting SUV and truck sales, how do you get those fuel efficiency ratings moving back in the right direction?

Clearly, this will take some innovative thinking, but there are some tech solutions that could help.  Here are five that look promising.

Stop idling

So-called “start/stop” technology isn’t really new—it’s been one of the keys to making hybrids so fuel-efficient. When a car stops at a light or in heavy traffic, the engine quits running, instead of burning gas as it idles. Take your foot off the brake and the engine starts back up. 

Incorporating start/stop into vehicles running strictly on gasoline has been fairly rare, but that’s starting to change. For instance, beginning with its 2017 models, Ford is adding the technology to many of its F-150 trucks, the most popular pickup in America.

A San Francisco startup called Voyomotive has now made it possible to add start/stop technology to older gas-powered vehicles. The company has developed a $100 device, called Voyo, which plugs into a port under the dashboard that provides access to the car’s computer, if the vehicle was manufactured in the U.S. after 1995. This allows the driver to upload all kinds of driving behavior data to his or her smartphone. But Voyo’s top feature is what it calls EcoStart, described as the “world’s first plug and play start/stop system.”

It’s pretty simple to install—two $50 relays connect the Voyo to the car’s fusebox—and it gives the driver more control over when the engine shuts down. In standard start/stop systems, the engine quits running once the car stops for a short period of time. That can get annoying in heavy stop and go traffic. With EcoStart, however, the engine doesn’t automatically stop when the car does, but when the driver pushes the brake pedal all the way to the floor. 

Voyomotive claims that a person who cuts out 20 minutes of engine idling a day can save hundreds of dollars a year by reducing their gas consumption by roughly 60 gallons. Plus, they say it would decrease that driver’s annual carbon dioxide emissions by more than 1,200 pounds.

Good vibrations

Researchers at Bosch, the German manufacturer, also like the potential of the pedals for getting people to drive more efficiently. But for them, it has nothing to do with shutting down the engine. Instead, it’s about signaling drivers to stop doing inefficient things, such as speeding off when a light turns green or going too fast up a hill.  

Their idea is that the gas pedal would provide feedback by vibrating or pushing back lightly against the person’s foot when they’re doing something that’s wasting gas. Bosch says it found that people responded 10 times more quickly to what it described as an “active pedal” than alerts on the dashboard.

The pedal also could be used to communicate with people in other ways, such as alerting drivers of hybrids when their cars are about to switch from battery to gas power, allowing them to slow down and stay in electric mode for as long as possible.

Based on testing on a 50-mile track, Bosch estimates that its vibrating pedal could boost fuel efficiency by as much as 7 percent. The technology could be available in two to three years.  

So long, side mirrors

They’ve been a fixture on vehicles for more than 100 years, but those side mirrors that stick out like odd little ears may soon be going the way of car keys. It seems only a matter of time before they’re replaced by thumb-size cameras that show what’s beside and behind your car on dashboard screens.

At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, BMW showed off a mirrorless car, one in which tiny cameras provided a more panoramic view of the car’s surroundings than you’d get from traditional mirrors. Auto parts manufacturers, such as the German firm Continental AG, say the camera systems—known as “digital mirrors”—are safer because they eliminate blind spots and glare, and never have to be adjusted.

So what does that have to do with fuel efficiency? Well, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, those small protrusions can increase a vehicle’s drag by as much as 7 percent. That may not sound like much, but with American car makers facing such ambitious fuel efficiency goals, every little bit helps.

There is, however, one big hurdle. Since 1968, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has required all passenger vehicles to have at least one mirror on a side door and one above the windshield. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the 12 biggest car companies, has already asked the federal agency to change the rule so side mirrors can go away. So has Elon Musk, who really doesn’t like mirrors sticking out on the Tesla.

Best guess is that the U.S. regulation won’t be changed until at least 2020. But the idea is moving ahead quickly in Europe. The European Union has already approved digital mirrors, and road testing is expected to start this year.        

Smart cruising

Many new cars now have what’s known as “adaptive cruise control,” which means that when you switch to cruise control, your car doesn’t just stay at a set speed, but actually adjusts the speed so you stay a safe distance from other vehicles. 

But a team of Canadian engineers says this technology could be taken a step farther. They’re suggesting an onboard sensor could incorporate data on road conditions, such as hills, curves and other traffic conditions, to direct your car to operate more efficiently.

Keep in mind that their conclusions about what they call “ecological adaptive cruise control” are based on computer simulations, and not actual road tests. But in one simulated scenario that involved going up and down a hill, the cruise control sped up a vehicle before it headed uphill, and in doing so, cut its energy costs by 15 percent, according to a recent report in IEEE Transactions on Intelligent Transportation Systems.  

Overall, the engineers estimate that their system could boost the energy efficiency of a Toyota Prius hybrid by 19 percent.

Score points, earn money

There’s even an app out there now to make truck drivers smarter about how efficiently they drive. It’s called PedalCoach, and it was developed by a Boston company, LinkeDrive. 

PedalCoach has been described as a kind of FitBit for truck drivers, one that motivates them to keep improving their fuel energy performance. The Android devices are installed in a truck’s cab and use algorithms to set unique fueling goals for each of a company’s drivers. Its display uses a simple red-yellow-green interface, so it’s very easy for a driver to see if they’re in a good or bad range. If they spend most of their driving time in the former, they earn points. And that means more money.   

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