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fuel economy

Alex Debogorski is a big bear of a guy, most noted for his appearance for several years on Ice Road Truckers. To say taking part in a driver challenge to drive conservatively and within a tangle of rules might be a stretch for him was an understatement. I asked if he thought his trucking experience would be a major factor in the Shell Smarter Driver competition.

"I think the fact an oil company is teaming up with environmental groups is a bigger deal," he replies.

He's right. We were joined in Medicine Hat by Ed Whittingham, of the Pembina Institute. A Canadian non-governmental organization focusing on sustainable energy solutions, it would be monitoring our results with a healthy dose of skepticism. If an organization advocates getting cars off the road altogether, how much of a dent could altering driving habits really make? From Whittingham's blog:

"If one in 20 Canadian drivers were to drive 20 per cent more efficiently, it would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from driving by about 800,000 tonnes per year. This is equivalent to taking 207,740 cars and light trucks off the road. If half of Canadian drivers adopted more-efficient driving techniques – say as part of a driving license training program – the savings would be on the order of eight-million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year."

In Calgary, Whittingham handed off the keys to Bob Oliver, Executive Director at Pollution Probe in Toronto. With the launch of its 20th annual Clean Air Commute program, Pollution Probe challenges commuters to find more sustainable ways to get to work. Carpooling, transit, cycling – all have been obvious choices. Could changing driver habits be a viable option?

Over the course of our two-week journey (we had a few down days for press events), we would be cycling through eight drivers. Some, like Whittingham, took the wheel for one shift; others, like 17-year-old Simone Kitchen-Kuiack from Whitehorse, winner of a household Energy Diet Challenge last year, joined us for two days. Debogorski and me were the mules, driving every day. If this experiment failed, we would be taking a pretty public pounding.

Is hypermiling really hyper? After driving nearly 6,340 kilometres with the Shell Smarter Driver Challenge from Halifax to Vancouver, I'd have to say no. The word "hyper" connotes being jumpy or jittery or tense. The only thing anxious about striving for greater fuel efficiency is a huge rig looming behind you, a string of red lights taunting you one after another, or the Rocky Mountains sitting prettily down the road.

Okay. There are moments of anxiety.

John and Helen Taylor, an Australian couple, claim to have set 92 world records for fuel efficiency. What began as a personal challenge soon evolved into a business that keeps them on the road up to 300 days a year. They formed the international Eco2Driving, challenging anyone, in any vehicle, to best any of their marks, and worldwide competition is robust. They also work with car manufacturers, communities and individual companies to investigate and assess methods to produce better fuel efficiency, lessen environmental impact, and save money. Their website ( reveals not just tips – they suggest 30 – but the global impact that can result from following those tips.

Sometimes it's obvious things: truckers in Malaysia allowing their trucks to idle while they have lunch – for two hours. Other times, it's more logistical: using computer programs to create trucking routes that optimize right-hand turns, take advantage of non-peak traffic patterns, and reduce speed. It's physics, it's math, and it's also psychology. You must embrace the idea that any driver, in any car, can instantly drive more fuel efficiently.

I anticipated a laundry list of rules as we set out from Halifax on June 11. I'm already a fairly aware driver. I take a lot of advanced training courses and I frequently drive many different vehicles in many varied circumstances. What I've never done is become fixated with a tiny readout on the dash: how many litres of fuel being used per 100 kilometres. Transport Canada has stated that the Volkswagen Passat we are driving (a 2012 2.5-litre, five-cylinder automatic – we wanted a car that more people could readily compare to their own) should attain a combined highway/city fuel rating of 8.15 litres/100 km. Our goal as we crossed so many parts of Canada? To keep it way under that.

Instead of endless direction, Helen, my coach, simply said to keep an eye on the readout, make gentle starts, and learn where the car best responded. Each driver has either Helen or John in the passenger seat as a coach. If a particular driver isn't responding or getting decent results, they'll change; the Taylors have different approaches.

A couple of things soon became apparent. Your best friend for fuel efficiency is vision, both front and rear. Keeping your eyes high allows you to anticipate everything from changing lights to turning vehicles, from upcoming jams to road reconfigurations. The sooner you can see something, the sooner you can adjust your own response. You need to maximize your car's momentum. The time to begin tackling the next grade is half way down the previous one, if possible.

While unable to report actual figures until the very end of the challenge, it was immediately apparent that we were getting results. Most of these came at the expense of only one thing: time. Fuel efficiency takes more time. The slower starts, slower speeds and softer braking reduce fuel usage; they also mean it's going to take you longer to get there.

Many of the things advocated by the Taylors make a ton of sense, and most you already know. Don't carry excess weight; keep your tires properly inflated; have your car regularly maintained; be smooth, and don't mash the accelerator or the brake; get into the highest gear you can as soon as you can. Roof racks, even empty ones, will create drag, and if you must use air conditioning, do so sparingly. Each of these adds some percentage points to your fuel efficiency, so doing all of them can result in a measurable change.

Covering a distance of 6340 kilometres meant creating an excellent snapshot of putting all the suggestions to work. The trek covered nearly everything Canada's summer has to offer. We tackled highways from six lanes to two, construction, congestion, unpredictable prairie headwinds, surprise tailwinds, torrential rain storms and the fabulous Rockies.

My one concern upon entering this challenge was the same one I left with. I won't drive at a dangerous speed on the road. While it takes some time to learn the best way to achieve decent speed while maintaining fuel efficiency, it became my primary goal. We had some rough spots; when you're driving one of the support vehicles, you're driving in the footsteps of the competition car. If it's going too slow, you're going too slow. Team meetings frequently had me mentioning my need for speed. Not speeding. Just adequate speed. It's something you can definitely achieve while getting better efficiency; of the eight drivers, I drove nearly a third of the kilometres, with excellent efficiency numbers. There is no way I was poking along. If you're going to sell people on changing their driving practices, it's important to admit that while some steps are easy, others require skill. The good thing? Practise will get you there. If your car doesn't have the digital readout for fuel consumption, you can start testing your skills by topping up your tank, zero it out, keep your engine revs less than 1,500, drive smoothly, don't speed and don't idle more than 10 seconds, even at a light.

We did all of these things. If you're used to driving as fast as you can get away with, you'll find the slower pace a bit of a time vampire. There are adjustments needed to expectations and temperament. You have to relax while simultaneously becoming more conscious of your surroundings, and your vehicle. The good thing? Everybody can apply some of the Taylor's tips right away.

How'd we do? We covered those 6,340 kilometres of varied Canadian terrain with 4.69 tanks of fuel. We averaged 1,352 kilometres per tank and 5.59 litres/100 km to establish a savings of nearly 32 per cent above the manufacturer's figures. Also telling, the diesel VW Touareg TDI that tailed the competition car saw an improvement of nearly 23 per cent, using air conditioning and paying less attention to stops and starts.

At dinner, a waitress asked Debogorski how much fuel we'd saved. He answered with his trademark booming laugh.

"Are you kidding? We produced fuel!"

Not quite. But it was still an eye opening experience.