Fuel efficiency record set with new technology and better driving habits

Jun 29, 2013

There's a new Guinness World Record when it comes to fuel efficiency.  A mid-size Volkswagen model set a record for the best fuel efficiency for a non-hybrid car this week.  The recent trip reaps lessons ranging from rethinking an old energy source to breaking some bad habits.

Wayne Gerdes and his driving companion, Bob Winger, took a trip that essentially took them more than 8,100 miles -- or just under 108 gallons of diesel fuel. The last leg of that journey brought them to central New York.

Gerdes is the founder of cleanmpg.com, and does fuel economy drives for several car manufacturers. He's set fuel mileage records before. This time, he drove a Volkswagen Passat TDI and broke the earlier fuel efficiency record of 68 miles per gallon. It also beats the hybrid vehicle record of almost 65 miles per gallon. Gerdes says this trip illustrates a fuel economy story about diesel fuel that America doesn't understand.

"Twenty, 30 years ago, you'd see trucks going down the road belching smoke," Gerdes said. "That doesn't happen these days."

He says diesel engines built today use low sulfur diesel. "It uses a diesel particulate filter which pulls the soot out of the exhaust stream," Gerdes said. "That turns to ash and is stored on the car until it's thrown away. And, it has a SCR [selective catalytic reducer] system, that reduces NOx [nitrogen oxide] to the levels way below what a standard car was just five years ago."

He says these engines are economical, with this particular car able to go almost 800 highway miles before needing to refuel. Gerdes also sees more automotive manufacturers turning to diesel engines because of the gas mileage factor.

"It's one way to get to the cafe standards of 2016, 2020, 2025," Gerdes said. "Diesel is more efficient than gasoline engines, we know that.  Now it's just a matter of letting consumers know just how efficient they are."

But it wasn't just the vehicle that led to the record breaking mileage. Gerdes also drove a mostly interstate route using special driving techniques that he says anyone can use to get better mileage.

"We're driving between the posted speed limits, between the minimums and the maximums," Gerdes said. "And we're following all the traffic laws of course, and we stay in the right hand lane in a ridge ride, and we do something called quick hits, in case we start to build people up in the back, we'll go off on a overpass, or we'll go off on an oasis or rest stop."

Gerdes says the biggest way to use less gas is to lay off the lead foot.

"The difference between 55 and 75 miles per hour in most of the vehicles I test drive as an auto journalist, is between 25 and 50 percent change in fuel economy between those two levels," Gerdes said. "You drive 55, you pay four bucks. [If] you drive 75, you pay six to seven dollars a gallon."

He also is not a fan of cruise control. He says driving slower up hills, and faster down them, is more economical.  He also notes heavy braking and acceleration eat up more fuel than coasting between intersections.

While it's clear he's working for Volkswagen on this particular trip, his zeal for getting the most out of a gallon of gasoline runs deeper.  He says it started after 9/11.

"We send about a third of a trillion dollars overseas every year just so we can drive whatever we want, pay whatever we want," Gerdes said. "We have that choice. But a third of a trillion dollars overseas... some of that gets recycled to people who don't like us too much. And this isn't speaking for Volkswagen, this is speaking for myself. I'm kind of ticked off about that. I don't want to give money to enemies."