- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

During your school days, who got better results from you: the rigid grammar teacher who dictated how it should be done - no ifs, ands or buts - or your supportive sports coach who cheered you to better performance?

Research by Ford Motor Co. and the strategic design firm IDEO found that people definitely prefer the “coach” model of instruction to the “expert” model. This is important for drivers who would like to learn to drive more efficiently.

Most of us wince when the gas needle drops to empty, bummed that again, we haven't gotten the fuel mileage that we think our car should achieve. There's a new breed of drivers today, called “hypermilers.” These drivers are mileage fanatics who get “hyper” miles per gallon from a tank of gas - easily topping the most optimistic EPA highway-mileage ratings.

Hypermilers show that anyone can get better mileage when the vehicle is driven optimally. Now automakers are beginning to provide drivers with coaching on how to accomplish that. That is Ford's goal with the development of the SmartGauge system in the 2010 Fusion Hybrid.

According to Sonya Nematollahi, a driver-information engineering supervisor for Ford who examined the ways student drivers are instructed, driving lessons traditionally have been done from the perspective of an expert providing instructions for the driver to obey. A more constructive paradigm that Ford found through consumer research is that of a sports coach, Ms. Nematollahi said.

Rather than providing rigid instructions to be followed, coaches observe from the sidelines and comment on what they see you doing on the fly. So the Fusion Hybrid's SmartGauge system was designed to reflect that approach.

“We are providing information so they can develop new driving behaviors,” she said. “It is like a good coach who doesn't punish or preach.”

Some of the important issues when coaching for fuel economy include what information to provide and how best to present it. Many new cars can display both instant and average fuel economy and those can be helpful, too. But for the 2010 Fusion Hybrid, Ford wanted something more in-depth.

The result is the SmartGauge, a pair of 4.3-inch LCD panels flanking a central speedometer. Significantly, because different drivers have different needs and priorities, SmartGauge can be configured to four different levels of increasing depth. The company refers to them as Inform, Enlighten, Engage and Empower - based on the depth of the information provided. The driver may choose the level they find most helpful.

One level presents a linear, vertical tachometer that shows the speed of the car's gas engine. But more importantly for a hybrid, there is an overlay that shows the range of throttle input that will let the driver keep the car running on battery power alone, with the gas engine off. Showing drivers this information gives them the ability to accelerate as quickly as they can from a stop without starting the gas engine.

Another screen depicts the driver's overall efficiency accomplishments, which are depicted by leaves growing on vines. An earlier concept had the driver earning trees; but in testing, the resulting forest was distracting to drivers, Ms. Nematollahi said. There is even a screen that shows the parasitic load on efficiency that comes from running accessories such as air conditioning.

Rather than having an alarm that intimidates drivers, SmartGauge offers a display mode that shows where the power is going and how much is consumed by accessories, so drivers can decide for themselves whether they want to make any of those adjustments. In practice, this should let them earn more leaves so they'll know even before getting to the gas pump for the next fill-up that they are saving fuel.

Not many of us drive hybrids, so some of the SmartGauge's functions, such as the electric-only overlay on the tach, aren't relevant to us. But many of SmartGauge's information and coaching functions can help drivers with conventional engines save gas, too.

“It is absolutely applicable to conventional cars,” Ms. Nematollahi said. “We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from drivers about SmartGauge. This is just the beginning, and we are going to keep advancing it.”

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