Z and the art of eco-driving

By Jennifer van Beynen

Z and the art of eco-driving
MiNDFOOD gets behind the wheel with eco-driving expert Mark Whittaker and discovers how to drive with fuel efficiency in mind.

While many of us race around in our cars from A to B, using brake and accelerator with abandon, we don’t stop and think about how this affects our fuel consumption.

An initiative by Z Energy aims to help customers drive more sustainably – and have fun while they do it. Z Energy has teamed up with eco-driving guru Mark Whittaker of Ecodriver New Zealand, to give customers the experience of testing their eco-driving. While the project may mean a slight drop in fuel consumption, the company is focused on the big picture, hoping to improve its sustainability in the long-term.

“Billions of dollars in research and development are now targeted towards efficiency,” says Whittaker of the automobile industry. He holds the New Zealand record for fuel economy and has been technical advisor and trainer for more than 30 driver and navigator crews competing in the Energywise Rallies.

But while cars are being manufactured to function more sustainably, driver performance can affect fuel consumption by around 10-15 per cent. Along with making a saving at the petrol pump, fuel-efficient driving is safer and better for the environment.

A typical session with Whittaker consists of around 30 minutes of theory, then 30 minutes behind the wheel to try out those new skills.

It’s all about learning new habits, which Whittaker has encapsulated in 12 key points. These include: looking much further ahead than the car in front so you can plan ahead; accelerating smoothly; increasing your following distance, keeping tyre pressure correct; coasting, or using the momentum of the car, when you can; and turning off air conditioning and lights when possible.

The key is minimalism, says Whittaker – it’s about putting as little energy into the car as possible. This means accelerating smoothly and gently, and minimal use of the brake. “It’s about preserving energy so the car can perform better.”

After going over the key points we take a drive around Auckland, the idea being to drive in streets I’m reasonably familiar with, in order to concentrate on the task at hand rather than unfamiliar surrounds.

“Imagine your petrol tank is flashing empty and you have to get all the way back without stopping,” instructs Whittaker as we exit the motorway. The next 20 minutes is spent with my foot hovering carefully over the pedals instead of instinctively braking or accelerating. The car can coast for longer than I imagine, even rolling up and over a hill. Whittaker gives me feedback on following distance (satisfactory), accelerating (not bad) and braking (could do better).

Although much of eco-driving is common sense, there is still a lot to be learned – and put into practice. As we finish up, Whittaker asks, “Could you have gone any faster?” “Definitely,” I say, having tootled around the circuit at around 45km ph. “Actually the answer is no,” he says. “Because of the traffic around you, you couldn’t.” Short bursts of speed to overtake other cars, it turns out, will rarely get you to your destination much faster as there will always be something – a traffic light, a pedestrian crossing – to stop for.

Having rolled out an eco-driving tool online, which has piqued the interest of about 30,000 people, Z Energy is giving customers the chance this March to sign up for an eco-driving programme, which will track their progress. Participants will be offered two training sessions with Whittaker and users will track their results in the six weeks between the first and second sessions.

The sessions are free and the initiative will end at Boomrock in Wellington, where participants will compete against each other for the title of “New Zealand’s most efficient driver”.

See z.co.nz/ecodriver

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