By Chuck Squatriglia
When new hybrids from Ford and Honda roll into showrooms this spring, drivers will find flashy dashboards that turn hypermiling into a videogame.
Ford and Honda's next-gen instrument clusters feature trees (a vine in Ford's case) that grow more lush as drivers learn to hypermile — the fine art of maximizing fuel economy. Leaves grow like crabgrass in springtime if you use a light touch on the accelerator and go easy on the brakes. Drive like Jimmie Johnson and they'll wither faster than General Motors stock.
The idea, says Honda VP Dan Bonawitz, is "to help drivers improve their efficient driving skills by making the hybrid experience more fun and rewarding."
It's easy to dismiss the LCD displays as gimmicks — and some have — but we're going see more of them. Auto designers, academics and industry watchers say it won't be long before everyone's offering green gauges in an effort to make us all greener drivers. Some automakers are even thinking about using emerging technology in in-car internet development to let people compare stats and compile "top score" leader boards to make green driving a social activity.
"That kind of eye candy has huge appeal to consumers," says Eric Noble, president of The Car Lab, an auto industry consulting firm. "They'll provide huge amounts of information regarding fuel economy. There already are prototypes that are 3-D."
With demand for fuel-sipping cars rising and consumers more aware of the impact they have on the environment, automakers see a chance to help drivers use less fuel. Small changes in driving style — eliminating sudden acceleration, say, or minimizing the time spent idling — can have a huge impact on fuel efficiency. And nothing will make you ease up on the gas like seeing exactly how much gas you're sucking down, so automakers are creating easy-to-use interfaces to teach leadfoots good hypermiling habits.
With a glance, green gauges will offer everything from real-time driving economy to instant feedback on your driving style. They're a big step forward from the rudimentary fuel-efficiency gauges that Toyota's "eco-drive" updated a few years ago, and they're more engaging than the basic display found in the Prius.
Ford and Honda are leading the green gadget charge in America, and Nissan offers a similar system only in Japan.
Honda's display is part of the Ecological Drive Assist System featured in the Insight Hybrid that goes on sale in April. Eco Assist includes a driver-activated "econ mode" that adjusts the transmission and engine to deliver maximum fuel economy, and the background lighting of the speedometer changes from blue to green as driving efficiency increases.
Ford's version is called SmartGauge with EcoGuide. It debuts in the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids available this spring. SmartGauge tells you everything from the amount of gas in the tank to the temperature of the coolant in the radiator, while EcoGuide tracks real-time fuel economy and keeps a running tally on your efficiency.
Neither system offers constructive criticism — you won't hear your car tell you, "Back off on the throttle, pal." But the two automakers say providing drivers with data and rewards will make them more efficient.
"We wanted to emulate the world's best coach," says Jeff Greenberg, senior technical leader for Ford. "That was the basic metaphor underlying the whole idea."
Honda isn't saying much about Eco Assist before unveiling the Insight in January at the Detroit Auto Show. But Ford says it spent two years developing its system. Designers and engineers quizzed drivers in San Francisco, Chicago and Dearborn, Michigan, to learn what kind of information they want to see and how they'd like it displayed, then spent months working with focus groups to fine-tune the displays in a driving simulator.
So what's with the leaves?
"We wanted the SmartGauge to have an emotional component," Greenberg says. "We wanted something that would appeal to the data geeks, but we also wanted something that would create an emotional response."
Therein lies the challenge, says Cliff Nass, whose work with the Stanford University CarLab focuses on the psychology of making cars safer and more enjoyable. People may realize on a rational level that driving like a maniac consumes more gas and therefore creates more CO2, he says, but it rarely crosses their mind behind the wheel.
"There's just too much abstraction between pressing the gas and impacting the environment," he says. "That's a very difficult link to make."
Still, he says, Ford and Honda have done a pretty good job. The displays are pleasing to the eye and they convey information quickly, and people like trees because they're calming. But the systems make a mistake of using reward and punishment to change behavior.
"That's actually quite dicey," he says. No one likes to be criticized, especially when they think it's coming from something that should be subservient to them — like their car. So although people will enjoy adding leaves to their trees, they're going to be ticked off if those leaves disappear.
"It would be better to just have the tree turn off," Nass says. "If the tree turns off, people will say, "Uh-oh" and change their behavior. If the leaves fall off or the tree dies, they're going to say, 'Who the hell are you to criticize me?'"
That said, Nass believes the gauges can make drivers more efficient because people respond to calming influences. But Darin Cosgrove, founder of the hypermiling site ecomodder.com, says the displays might teach people not to stomp on the gas, but there's a risk drivers will tune out once the novelty wears off.
"I don't want to dismiss it because it's a really great idea," he says. "Putting numbers on the dashboard is helpful, but the growing leaves bit is a little gimmicky."
If the automakers want to make the gauges more than a gimmick, Cosgrove says, they should offer them in all of their cars, not just the hybrids. So far Ford and Honda plan to offer the eco-gauges only in the Fusion, Milan and Insight hybrids, although both automakers say we might see them in other cars.
Still, they're already looking ahead to the next-generation technology. Ford, for example is considering using Sync and in-car internet connectivity to allow drivers to "compete" to be the greenest driver. "We're really interested in that," Greenberg says. "We think there could be a big social component to it."
Nissan has offered something along those lines in Japan, where in addition to providing tips for improving fuel efficiency, the Carwings Eco-Driving service lets you know how you stack up against people with the same car. Nass says bringing that kind of social networking to hypermiling could make make eco-driving more popular, but he offers one warning.
"If you make it too much like a game, you'll have people concentrating on the game and not on the road," he says. "If you're driving and thinking only about the environment, you're going to smack into a tree."