GILBERT, Ariz. — After a 29-mile jaunt from his Phoenix office to his home here, Louis Hudgin proclaimed his gas mileage "pitiful."
He averaged just 88.3 miles per gallon.
Most drivers would take a victory lap if they managed to squeeze that kind of mileage out of increasingly precious gasoline. Even on this, a bad day, Hudgin coaxed 28 mpg more out of his 2000 Honda Insight hybrid than its federal highway mpg rating.
Hudgin's disappointment — he usually averages about 100 mpg this time of year — stems from his pride in being no ordinary driver.
He's a hypermiler, part of a loose-knit legion of commuters who've made racking up seemingly unattainable mpg an art. And a sport.
Hypermilers practice such unorthodox techniques as coasting for blocks with their car's engine turned off, driving far below speed limits on the freeway, pumping up tire pressure far beyond car and tire makers' recommendations and carefully manipulating the gas pedal to avoid fuel-burning excess.
They endure not only occasional honks from other motorists angry at their slow-poke ways, but intentional discomforts, as well. Like keeping the air conditioning off and windows barely cracked on a more than 90-degree day. Or parking in the boondocks at shopping centers so they can motor head-first toward the exit rather than backing out of a space.
Just about anything for an extra one, two, maybe even four mpg. With their odd fixation and log-book scribbles obsessively tracking their mileage, the hypermiler community might in other times be typecast as tightwad eccentrics. But in an era of $4-plus-a-gallon gas, they're garnering increasing attention as driving superstars, even saviors of the planet.
"More power to them if that's important to them, and they are accomplishing a goal that also benefits society," says Ron Cogan, publisher of Green Car Journal.
Automakers are taking notice. Honda will install an instrument in a new hybrid it will roll out next year that cues drivers for gas-saving actions, such as when to ease off the accelerator, says spokesman Sage Marie.
Hypermilers share their triumphs and secrets on a handful of websites. They also gather in some cities as a subset of clubs for hybrid-car owners, which many now are.
Driving safety advocates laud some of their habits — but heap scorn on others.
"Probably the most beneficial aspect of hypermiling is its emphasis on a less aggressive approach," says Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association. "The downside of hypermiling is some of the techniques can be extremely dangerous."
Turning the engine off while coasting can, in some cars, leave the driver without power steering or brakes and allow the possibility that the steering wheel will lock up. Drivers can endanger themselves and others if they go too slow for the pace of traffic.
How about that urge to "draft" trucks — follow close behind for less wind resistance — on the interstate?
"There's another term for that. We call it tailgating," Sundstrom deadpans.
Hudgin, a 56-year-old professional pilot, says serious hypermilers always put safety before mileage. Sure, he doesn't mind using a truck as a windbreak — but only, he says, if he can stay at least three seconds back.
During the afternoon drive with a reporter, he observes all traffic laws in a mix of city and highway driving.
But having to make a stop at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, grabbing a quick taco at a Mexican restaurant and getting stuck in rush-hour traffic on Interstate 10 take their toll on his usual mpg.
Normally, Hudgin says, he can roll up 100 mpg in warm weather, about 90 in the winter. But on this day, the kiss of mileage death came when his hybrid's battery started recharging, which causes the hybrid's gasoline engine to work harder and burn more gas. Those few minutes on the freeway slashed his mileage temporarily to a paltry 48 mpg, according to the car's computer. That's 12 below the two-seat, three-cylinder Insight's EPA mpg rating for highway driving.
Hudgin is not new to the mileage game. When Hudgin was young, an uncle drove a 1955 Morris Minor, a small English car, to Canada and bragged about 50 mpg. "I thought, 'That's phenomenal.' And it made an impression on me."
Hudgin has owned a series of compact vehicles known for their little engines and big mpg, such as a Subaru Justy and Chevy Sprint. He had a long commute, he says, and needed dependable and cheap cars.
Some mileage tricks he found himself. "I started going the back way, slowed down from 55 to 45 miles per hour and saw an increase of 16 mpg," says Hudgin, who flies executive planes for the state of Arizona.
Slow going on the byways tacked 19 minutes onto his commute, but he says he didn't mind.
In 2001, he bought his then-slightly-used Insight, an odd-looking car that was the first hybrid sold in the USA, though in limited numbers. It got the highest EPA mileage rating of any model until it was discontinued. He got 59.6 mpg from his first tank of gas.
Not bad, he says, but around 2005, he discovered the world of hypermiling, including Internet sites such as CleanMPG.com, Greenhybrid.com and several others where hypermilers share mileage tactics.
Finding miles online
Hudgin says tips culled from the sites helped him improve until in 2006, he averaged 112 mpg on a tankful while practicing to be part of a six-man team for the Insight Marathon, a mileage contest. All the claims are unverified, but Hudgin and other hypermilers say the proof is the car's own mileage computer.
Others claim similar triumphs. Randall Burkholder of Blackwell, Okla., whose Insight was used in the marathon, says the team got 164 mpg. He says 100 mpg is pretty routine on his 82-mile round-trip commute to work as a machine programmer.
"We know what the cars are capable of," he says.
Another hypermiler, Sean Welch of Coon Rapids, Minn., says he often gets more than a thousand miles out of the 10.6-gallon gas tank on his Insight. He says he uses the same techniques in his non-hybrid 2002 Hyundai Elantra and also gets astounding mileage.
"Hypermiling is a whole suite of tools. It's half science and the other half is art, knowing when to apply them," says Welch, 31.
Some of the science comes from a gauge hypermilers put into cars that don't have one built in that offers a continuous reading of their gas mileage at any moment. Without such gauges, it's hard to figure out what works or what doesn't.
"There's no magic pill," Hudgin says. "You really need to change your driving style. If you're talking on your cellphone (behind the wheel), it isn't going to happen. You have to concentrate on your driving."
Hypermilers have their own lexicon for their tricks.
There's "pulse and glide," in which the driver speeds up then shifts into neutral or turns off the engine to coast. There is "ridge riding," which is driving the car off center in a lane to keep its tires out of the tracks worn into pavement from years of traffic.
A natural result, of course, of all this intense study is competition for bragging rights as top hypermiler.
Many will gather in Madison, Wis., on July 19-20 for Hybridfest, which will pit hybrid owners from Florida to California in a contest to see who can get the best gas mileage over a scenic, winding, 30-mile loop.
The entry classes cover a wide range of hybrids, from tiny Insights to one for the guy bringing a new Chevy Tahoe full-size SUV hybrid that is government rated at 21 mpg. "He's pretty sure he can get 35," says Eric Powers, who is organizing the event as part of the Dane County Fair.
Adapting to road, weather
The strategy behind winning such rivalries is knowing which techniques to use at different times, based on weather and road conditions. Not all work on any given day.
"If you leave some on the table, that's fine," says Wayne Gerdes, who runs hypermiling site CleanMPG.com and holds seminars. Gerdes says he gets more than 40 mpg out of his 2003 Ford Ranger pickup.
Drivers don't have to be as extreme as the top hypermilers, however, to get better mileage.
Slowing down and laying off the brakes has helped California Highway Patrol Officer Heather Hoglund get about 10 mpg more out of her private car, a Toyota Prius hybrid.
But she says she's cautious about using hypermiling techniques: "Don't get so hooked on your hypermiling you don't put your foot on the brake when you need to."
Using a little gas for comfort
Hudgin's wife, Laural says she happily uses her air conditioning and has stopped turning her engine off during stoplight waits "because it dragged down the battery."
Yet, by driving smoothly in her diesel-powered 2004 Volkswagen Golf and carefully trying to time stop lights to avoid waits, she averages nearly 50 mpg, she says, about 10 mpg better than the car's EPA rating.
"She's a hypermiler in her own right," Louis Hudgin says.
But like any spouse, he admits, "I have to bite my tongue while she's driving."