Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Developing Smart Cars, Roads for a Greener Drive

• August 12, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Even without fancy new cars or fuels, technology now motoring off the drawing board will help you take that lead foot off the accelerator and start driving green.

If you’re the kind of driver who over-accelerates between traffic signals and jerks to a stop on red, you’re a prime candidate to learn eco-driving, the steady-as-you-go technique that can cut down on fuel consumption by more than 10 percent.

Eco-driving means “reading” the traffic flow as far ahead as possible so that you can maintain a consistent speed, anticipate stops and avoid excessive braking and accelerating. It means acting instead of reacting. You shift up as soon as possible. You don’t barrel toward the intersection and slam on the brakes. You slowly coast to a stop, saving gas and cutting down on idling time, when a lot of fuel gets wasted.

That’s “static” eco-driving. Now, engineers at the University of California, Riverside, are working on “dynamic” eco-driving, in which drivers get real-time feedback and advice on how to improve their fuel efficiency and cut carbon dioxide emissions. Within five years, researchers say, computer screens on the dashboard will likely tell drivers when to slow down to anticipate a red light, what the optimum fuel-efficient speed is for the stretch of freeway they’re on and whether to change lanes to maintain a consistent average speed.

The road transportation sector consumes a vast amount of fuel and accounts for about a third of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas the main culprit in global warming. In the campaign to reduce these emissions, dynamic eco-driving is “low-hanging fruit,” engineers say. It’s cheap and easy, compared to putting cleaner cars and alternative fuels on the market or building a mass transportation system. According to a real-world study by UC Riverside engineers, the fuel and CO2 savings from dynamic eco-driving ranges from 12 to 14 percent on freeways.

Can it persuade drivers to change the way they drive?

“At $3 per gallon, maybe not – but if fuel cost is high, they’ll pay attention,” said Matt Barth, director of the Center for Environmental Research & Technology at the UC Riverside’s Bourns School of Engineering. “And having a constant feedback is valuable. Hopefully, that will stick.”

Newer car models already provide instantaneous fuel economy readings, allowing drivers to adjust their speed as they judge best. The technology of dynamic eco-driving goes a step further. Gathering data from sensors embedded in roadways and around traffic signals, it can actually advise drivers what to do to save fuel as the traffic speed, flow and density changes around them.

In the not-so-far-off future, engineers predict, small computer screens mounted on the dashboard of any model year from 1996 to the present (cars built with onboard computer units) will display a “current speed” and an “eco speed” and be able to alert drivers as to whether they can make a red light. The technology will not, however, give drivers a countdown to the next light, which might encourage them to stomp on the accelerator.

“We can still guarantee you’ll get home in the same amount of time,” Barth said. “We’re just smoothing out how you actually drive. Based on the timing of the signals, we’re saying, ‘Speed up a little here, slow down here.’ We’re guiding you so that your likelihood of getting through the green phases is increased. These little things together add up to much greater savings.”

If even 25 percent of the cars on a freeway were equipped with dynamic eco-driving technology, they would form a block that all traffic would follow, and the savings in fuel and CO2 emissions would be substantial, engineers say. Eco-driving can apply to vanpools, buses and trucks, as well as cars. A recent report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, representing the governments of Mexico, Canada and the U.S., recommends a North American eco-driver certification program for freight truck drivers.

Eco-driving works best in light-to-moderate traffic: On congested roads, there is no room to speed up or slow down. For both fuel efficiency and savings in carbon emissions, the “sweet spot” is at 45 to 50 miles per hour, on average, though it varies, depending on the make of the car.

Having looked at freeways, Barth’s team is now designing a field experiment on surface roads with traffic lights, to compare the fuel and CO2 savings of drivers with and without eco-driving technology on board.

At the same time, Wenlong Jin, an engineer at UC Irvine, is studying how cars traveling on the same roadway can send information about traffic speed and congestion to each other on smartphones.

“With more cars, the information is more accurate,” he said. “One advantage of green driving is that just a few vehicles can set the pace and greatly smooth the overall trajectory.”

It’s safer, too. In a separate initiative, federal officials with the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office are studying the use of dedicated short-range communications, a wireless connection with a 1-mile radius, to improve safety on roads. As Miller-McCune’s Emily Badger wrote in January, “The Department of Transportation is largely focused on the technology’s safety implications, but officials want to make the anonymous data that’s routed through the system available to other researchers in an open-source platform.”

Global positioning satellite navigation systems now provide drivers with turn-by-turn directions on the dashboard or by cellphone; and there are apps for getting real-time traffic conditions on iphones and Blackberries. For traveling “green,” the 2011 Ford Edge navigation system has an eco-routing feature that tells drivers the most fuel-efficient route to their destination, in addition to the fastest and the shortest routes. (The eco-route is not always the shortest: If the shortest route is congested, the longer way around may save more fuel and CO2 emissions.)

Finally, UC Riverside engineers have developed, but not marketed, an application for an eco-routing navigation system that could be used on a website, iPhone, iPad or Android phone as well as the dashboard of any car. The UC system provides seven routing options for minimizing distance, time, fuel consumption and the emissions of CO2, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.

Eco-driving has been around for more than a decade, most notably, in Europe and Japan, Last year, the European Union launched eCOmove, a three-year, $19 million project to support eco-driving with “perfectly eco-managed” road networks, including vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

In a recent study, 5,700 Fiat drivers in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain were equipped with eco:Drive, a Fiat application designed to improve their driving. In the car, they plugged a UBS connection into the dashboard to record information about their speed, gear changes, acceleration and deceleration. At home, they plugged the USB into a computer to track their fuel and CO2 savings and get tips on how to improve. After 30 days, the Fiat study showed, participants stopped less frequently, slightly reduced their trip times and slightly increased their average speed. In short, they drove more fluidly. (Germany proved easiest to drive in; Spain and Italy were hardest.)

On average, the eco-drivers saved 6 percent on fuel consumption, with the best drivers getting a 16 percent savings, the study found. If all European drivers performed like the best eco-drivers, it said, every year they would save five times as much fuel as is produced yearly on the world’s biggest oil platform; an amount worth $68 billion, or as much as what the European Union spent on renewable energy in 2009. At the same time, they would reduce their CO2 emissions by 90 million tons, equivalent to one year’s worth for the entire country of Portugal.

“Of course, this is a utopia, but it provides a flavour of the power of eco-driving if it were to become the ordinary way of driving,” the study concluded.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


September 25 • 7:00 AM

Hating Happiness

People all over the world are afraid of happiness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s yet another challenge to the notion that positive thinking can heal all wounds.


September 25 • 6:00 AM

Why I’m No Longer Willing to Give My Money to the NRA

I grew up with guns—as a kid and during my 20-year military career—and support individual ownership rights, but the National Rifle Association’s platform has shifted radically in recent years.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.