Ford teaches hybrid buyers how to drive
By Sharon Silke Carty, USA TODAY
Ford hopes to educate owners of cars like the Escape Hybrid on mileage basics.
Tips for top performance
Ford plans to bring a pared-down version of its hybrid school to 10 cities across the USA. Here are some tips gleaned from the Dearborn event, some of which could be used to improve mileage in a gas-only vehicle as well:
Air conditioning. Don't use the maximum setting. That prevents the electric motor from engaging.
Brake sooner. Many drivers continue pressing on the accelerator even when they are coming up to a red light. The electric part of a hybrid engine gets recharged through braking, so the sooner a driver brakes the better it is for fuel economy and for the battery.
Accelerate slowly. The electric engine can power the car up to 20 miles per hour, providing the driver isn't accelerating too fast.
Inflate the tires. Low tire pressure will "kill your fuel economy more than anything," Ford's Mary Ann Wright says.
Plan errands better. The hybrid engine needs some time to warm up, but idling the Escape will drain its fuel economy. Ford engineers suggest driving to the farthest errand first and then working your way home.
By Sharon Silke Carty
DEARBORN, Mich. — It's not often that a team of engineers can feel like celebrities.
But last weekend, Ford engineers spent two days teaching 300 well-educated, well-connected technology lovers everything they can do to maximize the mileage on their gas-electric hybrid versions of the Escape SUV.
"It's important because we want to make sure people know how to drive the cars to increase their fuel economy," says Mary Ann Wright, director of hybrid technologies. "And it's important for my group, too, because they really feel like rock stars."
The move comes as more hybrid owners say they are unhappy with the fuel economy they get. Hybrid vehicles are powered by two motors, one gas and one electric, and can deliver much higher gas mileage than traditional engines. But about 60% of hybrid owners say they're not happy with how much gas their cars use, compared with 27.1% for all cars and trucks, according to CNW Marketing Research.
Ford's event, which filled up in a day, drew hybrid Escape owners from as far away as Colorado and West Virginia. Drivers were paired with engineers who had helped develop the system, then took a ride around the back streets here, where Ford is headquartered.
At the end of the trips, many had increased their average fuel economy by several miles per gallon.
Michelle Wood, an engineer from Ford's Kansas City plant, accompanied Warren and Betty Woomer of Charleston, W.Va., on a drive through Dearborn early Sunday morning.
"Everything with this vehicle you want to keep smooth and slow," Wood told Warren as he approached a red light a little too fast. "If you slowly hit the brakes, you'll charge the battery."
Woomer increased his average fuel economy from 27.9 mpg to 30.5 mpg at the end of the 7.7-mile trip. Woomer, the first person in his area to have an Escape hybrid, says he appreciates that Ford is "listening to their consumers and what folks are telling them."
"We created about 300 ambassadors for us," says Wright. "It's free advertising, and we're getting some great feedback from them."
As gas prices have risen, so has the chatter about hybrids on blogs, says Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Intelliseek, a company that tracks what people are discussing on the Internet.
Many "early adopters" — folks who might be the first people in their neighborhoods to own a hybrid — are now dishing out advice to others about which cars to buy, he says.
"The auto industry in general needs to do a better job listening to consumer sentiment, especially when there are areas of potential gaps between ad claims and product performance," he says. "For many consumers, there's been some unmistakable disappointment when hybrid cars aren't meeting the full promise staked out in the commercials."
Blackshaw should know. Thrilled with his purchase of a silver Honda Civic hybrid two years ago, he started a blog — hybridbuzz.blogspot.com — posting pictures of its vanity license plates that read: MO MILES.
But Blackshaw quickly discovered that the car didn't get close to the 50 mpg promised. The blog became a chronicle of his adventures trying to get Honda to increase his car's fuel economy and to start advertising more realistic fuel economy numbers.
Chuck Schifsky, a spokesman for Honda, admits that consumers get about 10% fewer miles per gallon than the sticker advertises, but he says that's what many people expect.
Fuel economy numbers are calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which sticks a tube into the exhaust pipe, runs the vehicle on a treadmill, then figures how much carbon has been burned. That leads to mileage numbers that are often higher than what drivers obtain in the real world.
"The first issue is managing people's expectations," says Schifsky, who noted that Honda is cooperating with the EPA to come up with a better way to formulate the numbers.
Ford says it tried to head off disappointment by underestimating its fuel economy numbers — something the EPA says it is OK to do. The company says drivers should get 36 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway. It's higher in the city because the electric engine engages at low speeds.
John Erdkamp, of Greeley, Colo., says he's been getting at least 36 mpg since he bought his Escape. He averaged more than 40 mpg on the drive from Colorado to Michigan for Ford's hybrid school and managed to increase that to 54 mpg afterward, besting a record set by Ford engineers of 50.3 mpg.
Two days later, back at home, Erdkamp posted a message to 400 Escape hybrid owners.
"I drove 2,700 miles just to be face-to-face with the engineers," wrote Erdkamp in his review of the event. "It was worth it."