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Small Change

My Mileage is Better than Your Mileage

An all-American idea for getting Americans to take gas consumption seriously

by Bill McKibben

Published in the January/February 2003 issue of Orion magazine



That’s thanks to my new Honda Civic Insight, of course—a car indistinguishable in appearance from all the millions of other Honda Civics, except that it almost never stops at gas stations. But to me the niftiest thing about the car is not its four-cylinder Vtec engine, or its trunk-mounted battery pack, or its regenerative braking that charges those batteries every time I put on the brake. It’s the gauge that lets me know exactly how many miles I am getting per gallon.

Mounted on the dashboard, right next to the speedometer, the gauge constantly tells you your current gas mileage, and your average for the trip so far. When you start down a steep hill and gravity’s doing all the work, it shoots cheerfully up to its max, 120 miles per gallon. When you start up a hill, the electric battery kicks in to help the gas engine, and the little gauge drops dishearteningly down to, say, 40 miles per gallon. Every tenth of a mile, it recalculates your average. Near the start of a trip, the average swings wildly—one hill up or down can raise or drop it 10 mpg. After 400 miles, though, you’d need to climb a continental divide to shake up the average.

Does it sound like I pay inordinate attention to the gas gauge? Absolutely. And is it because I’m obsessed with global warming? Not really. True, that’s why I bought the car in the first place, paid the two grand extra it costs to get the hybrid engine. But if you thought about global warming all the time, you’d be nuts. When I’m behind the wheel, I’m an American—competitive, score-keeping, out to win. As I pull out of the driveway, what I think about is: can I beat my last trip? Will I make it home averaging 60, or is the last hill on Route 125 going to knock me under? My Civic is only supposed to get 52 mpg, but I’ve got that beat cold.

And it turns out that I’m not alone in this mild obsession. Almost from the day the first hybrids came off the boat from Japan, drivers have found themselves pushing to get the maximum mileage. Their crowing fills one webpage after another. John Johnson in Michigan, for instance, bought his two-seater Honda Insight not for environmental reasons but simply because it was the latest cool thing. Now he calls himself “Insightman” and his vanity plate reads IGO ECO. He reports that on those days when other cars are scarce and he can really slow down going up hills, he can break 80 miles per gallon. “On the first leg of my 82 mpg personal record fifteen-mile round trip to work,” he writes, “I achieved an amazing 91.1 mpg!”

What does all this prove, except that driving is so dull that even keeping track of fuel consumption can liven it up? It proves that measurement changes behavior, one of those maxims dear to dieters, stock analysts, and advocates of standardized tests for schoolchildren. If, as with most cars, you have only the dimmest notion of how many miles to the gallon you get, it’s no wonder that fuel economy ranks low on your list of priorities. The minute you start measuring mileage, though, you start caring about it. You can’t help yourself—it’s like an itch. Your driving habits begin to change: no more jackrabbit starts, not ever; it’s too easy to see the toll they take on your gas tank. You develop a light foot, learn how to hold a steady 65 on the highway without any yo-yoing up and down.

And when you go to buy your next car, I wager you won’t accept anything less than the mileage you’ve been getting. Not because you’re an ecofreak. Because those numbers are on your mind.

So what if your electric meter were mounted in your kitchen where you could watch it spin? And what if your thermostat gave you an updated oil consumption readout every time you went to turn it up? What if your faucet showed you how much water you’d used in the last day, and how it differed from your annual average? Would you change your behavior? I think you likely would—that you’d reach for a sweater if it was just a tad chilly around the house, that the average shower would get a little shorter. Not because you cared about the environment, or even the money you were burning in your furnace, but because—well, because it’s a number, and our instinct is to improve it, to notch it up. You’d meet the neighbors on the street and just happen to mention that you’d gotten through the winter on 44 gallons of crude, thanks to the nifty new cellulose insulation in the attic. Someday all the numbers might even be enough to make you reevaluate lifestyle—make you ask questions like, should I really be driving 450 miles in anything to talk at an environmental conference? Isn’t there someone I can carpool with? Is this conference really useful?

And what if there were an index, like the Dow, that offered an average of income growth but also of pollution and crime and broken homes? Soon policy would be focusing on lowering that index, just as it now focuses mindlessly on expanding the size of the economy. Say the Commerce Department stopped caring so much about per capita annual income, and started issuing regular monthly updates on, say, the amount of leisure time each of us enjoyed. The people at a nonprofit called Redefining Progress have been doing just this sort of work for a decade, and their Genuine Progress Indicator has grown increasingly sophisticated. (At the moment, it’s trending steadily downward). But such measures have not spread widely enough yet to begin driving the political debate.

Environmentalists have been stymied in getting real changes through Washington. Just last spring, pressured by both carmakers and auto unions, the Congress rejected a plan that would have increased average fuel efficiency to 36 mpg by 2016. (Thirty-six mpg! Ha!) But maybe for a year or two we should ask for something much simpler: that every vehicle on the road come equipped with a gauge like the one in my Honda. One that shows exactly what kind of mileage you’re getting. I’m almost certain that without changing anything else in our cars, fuel efficiency would jump ten percent.

Of course, there are times when measurement can have unwanted side effects. Last week, on my way home from yet another environmental meeting, a policeman pulled me over. It seemed that I had coasted through the last two stop signs. I explained in some detail about the way that a teeny tiny bit of a rolling start dramatically improved my mileage—I even showed him my gauge. He was either impressed, or he’d had his fill of wackos for the night. I escaped with a warning that the next time it would cost me a hundred dollars. Which was enough to get me to come to a full stop, no matter how much it made me wince to watch my mileage drop. I was a reformed Insightman, for the better part of a week.

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Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature, Long Distance, Enough, and in 2007 Deep Economy, is a staff writer for The New Yorker and visiting scholar at Middlebury College.

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