Monday, February 03, 2014

Feather the pedal

I believe in smooth driving. My driving philosophy has allowed me to go 53,000 miles before replacing the front brake pads on my car after buying it new years before. It has allowed me years of peace on the road. In this article, I would like to share with you some insights I have learned over the years while driving.

When I was a young man, I had an interest in performance driving. I was a big fan of Car and Driver magazine and I had been raised by a lead foot dad. So when I reached my early 20s, I began to read up on driving. Along the way I read a book by Bob Bondurant and learned about weight transfer, tire slip and a few other things that helped me to understand the basic dynamics of a car. I even learned how to get a car to "take a set", getting a car to squat down on the suspension in a turn.

In my early 20s, I also discovered a video game that never really took off from what I can tell. It was called Hard Drivin' and it was a very realistic driving simulator. In that game, I learned through simulation the dynamics of a car on a track at high speed. The steering wheel had resistance and the resistance grew at speed in the turns. If the car became airborne as it often did in the simulation, the steering wheel was loose. When I went over objects, the brakes and steering wheel had feedback from the road. It was very instructive and those memories are with me when I drive.

What I learned saved either saved my life or my car and I will never forget them. But the one thing that always stuck in my mind since then was to be smooth. In that book by Bondurant, there is a passage wherein he discusses the success of Jackie Stewart, one of the greatest Formula One racers in the history of the sport. I don't remember the exact quote, but let it suffice that the key to his success was being smooth on the track. Smooth with the brakes, smooth with the gas, smooth with the wheel. Being smooth in handling the car is what I'm always thinking about on the road.

I had an experience early on that taught me this lesson. I recall driving my car to give my sister a ride. I can recall seeing her, in the corner of my eye, bobbing her head as the car moved. I immediately assumed that I might be giving my passengers a rough ride, so I altered my style of driving to reduce any jerky motions for my passengers so that they could more easily endure my driving. I don't like to scare my passengers. After that, I thought of how it feels to ride in a limo. Limo drivers are very smooth, and when I have passengers in the car, I think of them first.

I have enjoyed reading Car and Driver magazine for many years. In the early years of my reading with them, their themes were nothing but 0-60 and top speed. They were a car magazine for the lead foots. They would take their test cars out to the track to get the top speed of a car, flat out, foot on the floor. One memorable example was when they tested a hopped up Camaro Z/28 to 212 miles per hour. Their articles were exciting, humorous and quite informative.

But then, at some point in time that I can't pinpoint now, they discovered efficiency. They correctly pointed out that fuel efficiency means power and that power and efficiency were not mutually exclusive. This is well known in racing. Racing teams are strictly regulated and must meet a certain set of specifications for their car to be qualified to race. From intake diameters to curb weight to gas tank capacity, they must follow the rules. After that, they are free to find other ways to increase efficiency. Why? They are given a limited amount of fuel for the race.

I distinctly recall reading an article in C/D, an article not on how fast a car would go, or how much power it had. No, this was an article where the test team did everything they could think of to get the maximum mileage in a car. I don't remember all the tricks they did, but one stood out. They drafted another car during the test. Drafting is something that race car drivers do, too. As a car moves through the air, it has to push the air out of the way, and that requires energy to do. Drafting is the art of following another car so closely, that greater fuel efficiency is realized. Yeah, the editors at C/D did that to get the most miles per gallon in a test car.

When I'm driving, I like to drive for efficiency. When I was a young man, I liked to drive fast on the street. Now that I'm older, and growing a family, mortality is more easily seen in my rear view mirror. But I also like to save on gas. I've noticed, for example, how getting into the throttle even in an economy car will cut mileage, noticeably.

I measure my efficiency by filling up the gas at the same time and place each week. This way, what changes is the amount I pay each time I fill up. I have a routine and I can see a difference from week to week depending on trips and driving style. If I get into the gas pedal for hard acceleration a few times during the week, it shows. If I fill up only when the tank is near empty, it is much harder to track the mileage. Here, consistency is very important if you want to track your gas mileage.

I've seen many people pass me up on the freeway, but to pass me when I'm already doing 70, that takes a lot of energy. I estimate that a person annoyed with me on the road is going to burn about a half mile of gas just to show me his disgust. So I don't waste gas on passing people who are slow. I just take my time, wait for an opening and gradually pass them. Gradual acceleration is much easier on the tank than full throttle acceleration. I get the satisfaction at the pump.

I rarely use the brakes on the freeway. When I want to decelerate, I let resistance do the work, so I just let off the gas until the speed I want has been reached and I resume cruise. I give enough space in front of me that I can manage the distance between my car and the car in front of me with just the gas pedal. The brakes wear a little each time you use them, and the amount of wear depends on the speed of wheel rotation. At 70 mph, your wheels will rotate much faster than at 30 mph. A tap on the brakes at 70 might be worth 10 taps at 20 or 30 mph. So I let the rolling resistance of the tire do the work of slowing the car down when I can.

There is one final thing I'd like to pass on: never assume that the other person can see you. Always, always, always, assume that no one can see you and that they are not paying attention to you. The world just isn't that small. If I am going to change lanes, I make sure that there are no cars in the lane on the other side of the lane I want to merge into. I also plan my exits a few miles before I get there, that way I'm already in the lane I want to be in when I approach the exit. Before I even get into my car, I have planned the route, so I don't worry about getting lost before I get there.

All of this experience has brought me years of peace on the road. I hope you find it brings you peace on the road, too.
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