Hypermiling: Frugal or Irresponsible?

by Emily Guy Birken · 42 comments

Whether you drive a hybrid or a regular car, you have probably tried to think of ways to reduce your gas consumption. One group of drivers has decided to go to extreme lengths to make sure their vehicles sip fuel rather than guzzle it. They are called hypermilers, and they have been known to get upwards of 180 miles per gallon. (And no, that is not a typo.)

Steps to Better Efficiency

The official website for hypermiling, www.hypermiling.com, details six steps to improved fuel efficiency. These steps begin with knowing your mileage, which is necessary for improvement. (The government fuel economy website provides an easy-to-follow guide for how to calculate mpg here).

From there, hypermilers take a long, hard look at their driving behaviors. Aggressive driving is a big no-no in hypermiling, as it leads to rapid changes in speed on the highway, as well as the “hurry up and wait” method of going through traffic lights in the city. Rethinking your driving etiquette and attitudes will not only help you calm any road rage, but it will also allow you to leave ample room between cars, reducing your braking and ultimately your fuel usage.

Another important technique that hypermilers use is called anti-traffic. William Beaty, an electrical engineer in Seattle, discovered this technique over a decade ago. Beaty realized that it was possible to help break up both traffic waves (stop-and-go driving on the highway) and traffic jams by altering your driving patterns when you see one of these problems on the horizon. By reducing speed and leaving more room in front of your car, you can help regulate traffic and reduce the wave or jam behind you. For a full description of the process, read Beaty’s article.

The final tenet of hypermiling is taking it easy, both by anticipating stops so you can take your foot off the accelerator before having to brake, and by slowly accelerating after a stop. Both of these techniques require you to give more thought to your movement than most lead foots, but it will lead to savings in your fuels costs, as well as more mindful driving.

Dangerous Hypermiling

All of the official steps to hypermiling are safe and can potentially make you a better driver. However, the hypermiler who clocked in with 180 mpg did not simply go through the steps advocated by hypermiling.com.

Many hypermilers take their quest for better economy to an extreme. Some habits, like driving according to the mpg display in hybrid cars, driving only when wind conditions are favorable, driving without A/C or open windows, and plotting out routes that minimize stop signs and traffic lights are safe but too onerous for most drivers. However, other habits are downright dangerous.

Some hypermilers turn off their engines and coast to a stop at traffic lights. Others consider braking to be “stoptional” and will glide through stop signs and lights, rather than brake. The most dangerous and irresponsible hypermiling technique is to “draft” behind a semi-truck. By tailgating very closely behind a semi, a car can reduce its wind resistance to the point that it is possible to continue at a high speed with your foot off the accelerator.

Obviously, these hypermiling techniques are not reasonable ways to increase your fuel economy. A good rule of thumb for anyone tempted to try the more extreme techniques is to think about a 16-year-old child trying it. If you’re horrified at the idea of an inexperienced driver doing something like that, then don’t do it yourself.

The Bottom Line

It is possible to increase your fuel economy by becoming a more defensive and mindful driver. That will also help reduce your chances of getting into a wreck. Done safely, correctly and legally, hypermiling is a win-win.

So, do you practice any of the above, and if not, would you try it?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Allen mills says:

    I currently get 42 mpg in my 78 corolla. Old as hell but waayyyy cheaper than a hybrid.

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  • David says:

    I wonder if this writer has actually hypermiled. There is a technique which he is totally missing. Background: an automobile engine is most efficient when it’s being pushed hard. That’s why economy cars have 3, and a couple of generations ago, 2 cylinder engines. They were always working hard, but they got good mileage. Engines are relatively inefficient when they are going 30-40-50 mph.

    Thus, the hypermiler accelerates quickly, and then coasts. And accelerates, and coasts. I have a scan gauge (it tells my instantaneous gas mileage), and when I accelerate in my Accord, say, in the city, my gas mileage might go down to 15 briefly, but then I coast, and even at 30mph in the city, it will go up to maybe 70-80-90.

    In city traffic, you can greatly boost your mileage this way, without much interfering with traffic. I can easily get around 40+ in the city, if I’m not having to spend inordinate time at stoplights.

    But on the highway, this kind of driving interferes with traffic, and it’s not much fun. So I don’t do it.

  • jamesintexas says:

    I have often wondered if a simple inline switch to cause a 10 second shutoff of the A/C compressor after a stop might greatly increase in-town stop-n-go mileage? I doubt any decrease in cooling would even be noticeable.

  • Thomas says:

    Ever try to hypermile your car by drafting behind another car or truck. Its not very safe and it sure makes the other drivers mad. Not to mention Im not sure how much of a boost you get in fuel economy.

    Best way to save gas is by driving the speed limit!

  • Jackie says:

    Hypermiling is fine as long as you stay in the right lane and let traffic pass. I’ve seen some obnoxious people going 50 mph in the left lane and not moving over to let other people pass and it’s very obnoxious. I don’t hypermile and to be honest, I think a lot of hypermilers hold up traffic the way that they drive and it aggravates other driver. I’d rather pay more in gas and accelerate than work so hard to save a few bucks.

  • The Ionian says:

    But, if you want proof in short form, ask any responsible authority, NSF, NASB, AAA, IDM, or any patrol police agency. But, if you are as stupid as you have made yourself seem and are the media tripe and hype type, check out the Mythbusters episode about it. I am sure they would be happy for the exposure but, be aware they may make fun of you on air.
    By the way. After your little missive I have decided to refer the article and your message to the Department of Transportation and others so they may have a look at it and maybe contribute something to the conversation.
    I would wish you a good holiday, but the likes of you need to be made an example of and publicly ridiculed for the absolutely moronic fools you are.

  • The Ionian says:

    One last thing while it fresh on your minds:

    “By tailgating very closely behind a semi, a car can reduce its wind resistance to the point that it is possible to continue at a high speed with your foot off the accelerator”.

    This absolutely- positively- has been proven to be not true….
    This is total B.S. and whomever wrote this is very irresponsible for having said it in e-print.

    Emily Guy Birken, you have not done as much research as you claim if you think this is true. You desperately need to correct this and do it quickly. Keep in mind that your’s is an open forum that may very well include some folks that are young and inexperienced, or not the brightest light, nor the sharpest needle on the Christmas tree of life.
    You have been very, no.- extremely irresponsible. You have done it in such a way that you might well cost a life.

    • MoneyNing says:

      Can you provide the proof you are talking about that drafting doesn’t reduce wind resistance?

      Emily mentioned in the article that drafting is VERY dangerous and even went on to say that it’s not a reasonable way to save on gas, but it doesn’t mean that the phenomenon doesn’t exist.

      If anyone is reading this, here are the facts. Drafting, if you can get close enough and the vehicle in front of you is big enough, does reduce wind resistance considerably. Having said that though, it’s VERY dangerous and not at all worth the risk because you are possibly trading your life for a few bucks worth of gas. It’s as simple as that.

      • David says:

        I think Ionian is a troll. Drafting certainly reduces wind resistance. Car racers used to do it (I don’t know whether they still do or not). Bicyclists do it–generally with other bicycles. But I do remember vividly a day with a terrible headwind in eastern MOntana, where it was hard even going downhill. A tractor pulled out on the road ahead, and I sprinted for it (on my bicycle) and drafted behind it until I lost it on an uphill. And one of the rationales behind efforts to develop self-driving cars is that on the highway, theoretically they could draft, and greatly reduce fuel use.

        • David says:

          Apologize to Ionian for calling you a troll. I disagree with you on the post I was responding to, but it’s obvious from your other posts that you’re not a troll. Sorry.

  • Randy says:

    Let’s be clear – no one driving a conventional gasoline engine car is getting anywhere near 180 MPG using these techniques. The people making these absurd claims are using electronic devices that plug into the cars On Board Diagnostic port that calculates the cars fuel consumption based on inputs from the engines Electronic Control Module and speed sensor.

    When hypermiling techniques are employed, the continued forward motion of the car without fuel consumption (engine shut off) skews the consumption calculations. Think about it. Fuel consumption = miles divided by gallons. When the consumption (gallons) goes to zero and the miles are still logging, the plug in device is trying to divide by zero – a mathematical impossibility (try it with your calculator).

    If you still think it might be possible, let’s put in other terms. A 2003 Honda Accord holds approximately 14 gallons with the fuel gauge needle on “E”. If someone were getting 180 MPG in their ‘03 Accord, those 14 gallons of fuel would log 2,520 miles on a single tank.. Actual miles driven (odometer) divided by actual fuel consumed (gas pump gallons to refill) is the only way to accurately calculate MPG.

    • The Ionian says:

      Youa re absolutely correct. We had one “driver” in one of our commercial units that had paid someone to implant into the computter system a device that overrode the computer in the original setup to accomplish. He got fantastic results reported to the satellite system and was paid several fuel bonuses based on that. The real thing emerged when he was involved in an accident that resulted from the inherent control systems being off-line. Then (and only then) did someone think to match fuel purchased records to actual miles determined by GPS and not the modified satellite system’s readouts.
      Guess who was fired by the company and prosecuted by federal authorities.
      By the way. Just about everything we haul is a liquid that wil burn, bite, or just plain go boom if handled too roughly, exposed to air and heat, etc.

  • The Ionian says:

    Listen up folks, and pay careful attention.
    I drive one of those “semis” that was mentioned by more than one of you and I see all the driving problems from a viewpoint you should have to experience for at least one day. If you did, your driving habits would undergo a drastic change; an absolute epiphany would occur in the way you drive.
    While we in the transportation industry have our own set of problems and problem drivers, we can weed our’s out, and indeed, are required by legal mandate to weed them out. Whereas you, the non-commercial drivers are more or less free to pursue whatever NASCAR/INDY/CART/NHRA fantasies you are having right up until the point you are jailed for being a habitual offender and not even a high-risk state sponsored insurance program will accept you as a customer.
    Most of us have used what you term as hypermiling for many years for reasons I shouldn’t have to relate here as they relate to nothing more than common sense (though that seems to be very uncommon). Fact is, we have to do it just remain out there driving.
    Best advice I can give you is to start early, drive sensibly, remain alert, turn off the electronic is traffic, and remember the words to the old Lovin’ Spoonfull song; “Slow down- you move too fast- “You got to make the mornin’ last- just kickin’ down the cobblestones and feelin’ groovy…”
    One last thing- and this is probably the most important of all. Keep in mind that you are likely not “at work”, but on the way to work or whatever. However, I am at work and you are in my workplace. You would not appreciate it if I came into your office/shop/surgical theatre/cafe/bank/whatever and jump in front of you and demand that I back off. I keep a distance cushion or safety zone in front of at all times unless I am frustrated in the effort to do so. You folks most often ignore that and intrude into that zone- at your extreme peril. My semi-tractor has two (2) cameras mounted in the front windows, and others mounted elsewhere (I won’t reveal where) and has several computer enhancements that enable me to monitor your movements relative to mine. Keep that in mind as those can, and would be used against you or I in the event of an accident. The images and videos from those have kept me from being in trouble more than once because they showed that a small vehicle was the problem. They have also gotten people into serious problems with the legal system as they impartially record what has happened around my vehicle and they have been used to prosecute drivers in cases where my vehicle had no part, but the video was used by prosecutors and private attorneys as evidence. Short and long is this- I don’t crap in your workplace- don’t crap in mine. Please do not bother me with a plethora of tales about bad experiences with semi’s as I have enough of my own to last. We’re working on getting rid of our bad apples, now you work on getting rid of yours.
    One last item- If you “draft” or tailgate a semi thinking you’re going to save a buck or two, watch the ‘Mythbusters” episode about that. If you still do it, or sit alongside one too long, you are too stupid to live, let alone drive a vehicle.

  • Teresa says:

    I live in Los Angeles and absolutely hate it when extremist “hypermilers” are in rush hour traffic. If one lane is not moving with the rest of traffic it’s generally a Prius who thinks that because he’s saving a tiny bit of gas all’s good, nevermind all the cars who are idling longer because of the Prius. Moderation folks.

  • Slinky says:

    Hypermiling is, as with most things, fine to a point. I should say two points actually. The obvious one is doing things that decrease your control of the vehicle. Shutting off your engine while in motion or driving in a high gear at low speed such that you have no power to maneuver. I drive a manual, and I’ll pick a higher gear over a lower, but people that drive 30 mph in 5th gear are crazy. Given an unexpected situation you can typically, brake, accelerate and/or swerve. Driving at low speeds in high gears and your ability to accelerate out of the way is severely impaired in most cars.

    The second point at which hypermiling becomes dangerous, is when you start driving in a fashion that is unexpected to other drivers. Given cars in front of me at a stop, I expect to make a left turn somewhere in 2nd gear, accelerating to 3rd after the turn. I’m not expecting to stay in 1st gear throughout the turn and I don’t. Similarly, while I don’t find it odd to have to brake behind someone going downhill, I don’t expect people to drive significantly under the speed limit just because we’re going uphill. The whole traffic system is based on everyone doing what everyone else expects them to. Start messing that up and the potential for accidents increases.

  • Great article. I am not a hypermiler, but am intrigued. Also, have you heard of nuride? You can get gift cards and such for carpooling with people, walking, or riding your bike instead of driving alone in a car.

    I will be including this as a link in one of my upcoming articles.

  • Veronica says:

    Wow…180 MPG is absolutely insane. I think a lot of the basics to this make a lot of sense. But turning the engine off & coasting to stop lights? I think that’s pretty irresponsible. What if an accident happened right in front of you and you couldn’t avoid it because your car wasn’t running?

    • COMMONSENSE DRIVER says:

      just practice when no one else is around. for example, my toyota has power steering and power brakes. I know I have to push harder on the brake pedal but I can still come to a very quick stop. And it is a little more effort to turn the steering wheel but not much really. Add a little adrenaline and its no problem. (i bet you think it is irresponsible to not be politically correct also,
      just a hunch) but have a nice day anyway.

  • Robin Poulin says:

    GREAT post.
    I try to slow down ahead of time for red lights and stuffier traffic to not have to brake as much. Save my brakes and fuel a little. I make sure first that I’m not going to be annoying anyone behind me.
    I have an automatic now, but I loved it when I had a standard vehicle to gear up and down to get better control of the stop and go of the car.
    Thanks for the post.

  • MerCyn says:

    Whenever possible people should consider mass transit. I ride the bus around town whenever feasible. In good weather (not cold winter days.) I walk a lot of places. In the past couple of years during the good weather months there have been more and more bikes riding around town and parked at restaurants, stores, the farmers market. They may not be cool racing bikes, but old-style bikes with baskets for storage and purchases. But they work, are great exercise, fun to ride, and save energy.

  • Wait. I missed it. Apparently in 2008 someone made up a silly word to describe sensible driving (but then it sounds like some have taken it over the top).

    Hypermiling – what will we think up next?

    Thanks for modernizing me.

  • I’m a hypermiler and I wrote a post this week about how to increase gas mileage, but I absolutely will never draft. It’s incredibly dangerous. I have driven behind a semi on a very dark road because its lights were 10x brighter than mine and benefited a little but I was at a safe distance.

  • stateofjustin says:

    No problem. I love cars, and I am a geek to boot. Sounds like your husband and I would be fast friends. I’m currently converting the suspension on the same car (my ’95 Civic) to the suspension of an Acura Integra Type-R (and the brakes to an Acura Legend, and so on). My Civic has 253,000 miles, still runs very strong.

    Another no-brainer for any car is to run a nice slippery oil, I run 0-20 Mobil1 synthetic. Reducing internal friction increases power and reduces fuel consumption a small but measurable percentage. It also can dramatically increase engine life. You may need different oil if you see snow, but if you don’t… you won’t.

    Here in California, surprisingly enough… the biggest problem is driving 50 or 55 on the freeway in the slow lane. Boy do you piss a lot of people off.
    They’re in an awful hurry to get to the gas station first, and I’ll let them.

    Either that or I’ll rev match, drop three gears, and eat them for breakfast.
    Mood thing.

    Carpooling is great, I encourage everyone to carpool. I like a lot of road to myself. Seriously though, for a lot of people driving is an ‘A to B’ affair, those people are very well off carpooling or ride-sharing. Top it with a diesel powered vehicle… and you’re doubling up the goodness. I enjoy driving too much for that.

  • @stateofjustin, Thank you for the in-depth explanation. I had read about hypermiling and was curious enough about it to experiment with gentler braking and accelerating, but I really had to do quite a bit of research to put together this introduction. It’s good to hear from someone committed to it. My geeky automotive engineer husband was really impressed with your comment.

  • As an experiment, I once drove slightly below the speed limit in the right-most lane on a Los Angeles highway, allowing all other cars to pass me. It was one of the most relaxing driving experiences that I can remember. Since I was maintaining a relatively steady speed, I didn’t have to brake all that much — only slowing down on occasions to adjust for cars coming in from the on-ramps.

    I remember reading a newspaper article (back in the 90’s) that said that California had to import gas to meet our needs. But if every driver could improve their fuel efficiency by 5% or so, we would consume less fuel than we produced, turning us into a gasoline exporter. Wouldn’t that be something.

  • Nate says:

    I live in the Northeast where people tend to drive very aggressive. I also happen to drive a large, 13 MPG truck, that is bigger than a lot of vehicles on the road. Since I own the truck I don’t have any payments on it, so I plan on driving it for awhile, even though it gets terrible gas mileage.

    Anyway, I’ve been able to regularly get 20 MPG in my truck by doing some basic hypermiling. I coast a lot, try to avoid stopping, and never use the gas when I’m rolling down hills. This is great for saving fuel, but it ticks off the aggressive drivers to no end. Luckily my truck is big enough that their tailgating doesn’t bother me much. In fact it’s sort of a game now – how much money can I save while pissing off crazy drivers? I look at it like this – I’m saving money, I’m potentially preventing them from getting in an accident, and we all get to where we’re going safely. Win-win? Absolutely.

    • COMMONSENSE DRIVER says:

      YEAH, we definately piss off the boneheads huh. The way I look at it is if you are behind me that means I WAS HERE FIRST. I also have saved a lot of people from getting tickets.(nothing but radar up here) and that I regret if they are on my ass.there are few things that piss me off worse than a tailgater. In my 75 blazer I get maybe ten mpg, and it has to be a pretty steep hill for me to be able to coast and not lose speed. That is where knowing the road helps a lot. I live in the mountains and sometimes you can coast for almost 30 miles. of course coming back it’s all uphill for that 30 miles, but what a huge diff than not coasting.There is one constant when driving tho,
      everyone else is either fn crazy or a fn idiot..

  • Cy says:

    I am glad someone here mentioned car pooling.

    In almost every discussion I see concerning fuel consumption people always seem to disregard things like improving public transportation, and offering incentives to car pooling.

    Maybe I am wrong in this, but wouldn’t have less vehicles in the streets make more sense from an energy efficiency standpoint?

  • stateofjustin says:

    I have used all techniques except for running traffic signals, and I have returned a best of 47.6mpg on my ’95 Civic DX (1.5L, I4, 87 octane). It has a standard transmission, and no power steering (these are suitable attributes for HMing).

    Cruising in neutral is illegal, as is obviously, running lights or signs.
    It also leaves you without immediate access to power for the purpose of maneuvering out of a potentially dangerous situation. If you cruise you must be very careful to monitor your surroundings and let the clutch out (starts the car, 2nd gear or above only, never first) at the first sign of any possible traffic scenario. I wouldn’t recommend running signals, that is obviously highly dangerous. I don’t see tailgating a semi as a huge deal if you are paying as much attention as you should to your surroundings. Any car can out-brake a semi with a trailer, and semi drivers ALWAYS draft.

    Cruising in neutral with the car running wastes gas, all modern cars shut off the fuel injectors when the throttle plate is closed and the vehicle is above a certain RPM (and the AC is off). The kinetic energy of the car is sufficient to continue to spin the engine through the gearbox and maintain the vehicle’s speed in this case.

    Done carefully, great results are safely achievable, however a serious HM car should have an electrical vacuum pump tied into the system to allow power boosting of brakes when the engine is off, otherwise it is too easy to not be paying attention and run yourself out of brake boost (typically 3 pedal strokes, effort increases with each). You also run the risk of mistakenly turning your key to off, thereby increasing the likelihood that you will lock your steering column and lose control of your car. Anyone serious about HM would be better off removing the column lock from the vehicle for safety as well.

    I don’t recommend any of this to anyone, for legal reasons and because driving skills vary so greatly. Every decision has consequences, be they bad or good.

    The best way to increase your mileage and save gas over the long term is to own a modern diesel engined vehicle, they are significantly more efficient than electric/hybrid/or Otto cycle engines. And they have a fat powerband to boot.

  • @Joseph, thank you for pointing out the pros of driving stick shift. I’m not particularly mechanically inclined, but it was really important to me to learn how to drive manual transmission because I didn’t want to be bested by a machine. It took me two years as a teenager to become completely comfortable with stick shift, but it’s been so helpful since then–my cars have been cheaper to buy, drive and maintain, I can drive a rental car in Europe, and I’ve never been intimidated by driving a new vehicle. And every car I’ve owned has been a manual.

  • Joseph Leslie says:

    One way to save on gasoline and automobile expenses is to buy a car with a manual 5 speed transmission. The automatic transmission costs you more in 3 ways. The automatic transmission adds to the cost of the cars purchase price. The automatic transmission uses more gasoline ( it is heavier than te manual transmission). It is less durable and requires more fixing and maintenance than the manual transmission.
    All of my children that have driver’s licenses know how to drive a manual transmission. If you know how to drive a manual transmission, you can also drive a car with an automatic transmission. My oldest Daughter made her husband learn how to drive a manual transmission.
    In the USA 95% of automobiles have manual transmissions; in Europe the reverse is true. I even drove my 5 speed MAZDA in New York City rush hour traffic. If you can walk, you can drive a manual transmission. Let’s stop sending our hard earned money to OPEC…

    • Jeff says:

      Few very manufacturer bother to make a 5 speed anymore. Automatics are just as good these days.

    • alfredo says:

      Joseph, i think you meant to write “In the USA 95% of automobiles have *automatic* transmissions” and not *manual* … right? 🙂

  • Jenna says:

    No, it seems like too much work to save a couple of dollars in gas. Just drive less. Best way to save money on gas.

    • MB says:

      I agree. Fortunately, I live in a city where I can either walk or use public transportation to help keep my driving expenses low. Walking also provides lots of exercise which helps lower my health care costs.

  • Hypermiling is smart driving. I think some people can take it to the extreme and that energy/time/mental cycles are probably best put towards something else, but ultimately a lot of the basic principles are just smart driving.

    One thing that some people don’t think about when they go “extreme hypermiling” is that carpooling trumps all that. Carpool once a week and save 20% off the top. (technically you need to carpool twice, but you know what I mean)

    • A combination of carpooling and hypermiling is definitely the way to go. It saves me a lot of gas money each month even though scheduling can be a hassle sometimes. On top of that, I can save on bridge toll. Sure beats being reckless.

  • Amber says:

    I try to follow the basics of hypermiling, but I must be doing it wrong because I’ve never gotten above 41mpg on a whole tank of gas with our Civic hybrid, and that was highway driving.

    I definitely watch the lights ahead of me and coast in as much as I can and I don’t do jack rabbit starts. I even turn my engine off waiting at the drive through and used to turn it off when I was the 3rd or 4th one at a light (now my car usually does that on it’s own now).

    @indio: I would say just get a fuel-efficient normal car. We got some surprise expenses with our hybrid: synthetic oil changes required, 3 air filters instead of 1, so that eats up any savings we might have from gas.

    • KM says:

      There are also other way to make sure you get all the mileage out of your car. Did you make sure your tires are properly inflated and all filters are clean? From what I can tell, you should be getting 40-45 mpg by driving normally, and if you are being conservative, even more than that.

    • Amber,

      That’s sad. I get more than 40 mpg in my ’08 Civic (5-speed stick) on the highway, at 70 mph, without even thinking about hypermiling.

  • indio says:

    I usually put my automatic car into neutral as I’m going down big hills but it’s not to eke more distance out of a gallon of gas. It’s to see how far the kinetic energy and the weight f the car will go on the flat or uphill portion after the hill.
    Yes, I definitely would prefer to have a more fuel efficient car. I’m not going to adopt a driving style that might cause accidents or road range when someone thinks I’m slowing down too far away from a red light. My next car will be a fuel efficient hybrid but that’s not going to be until the current car becomes old and gray.

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