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Green Driving School: Ford Engineers on Eco-Coaching

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In my interview with Susan Cischke, the VP of sustainability, environment, and safety for Ford Motor Company, she mentioned "green driving techniques" -- ways to save fuel while you drive. In a follow-up, Angie and Dave Watson, Ford engineers and the husband and wife team behind Ford's new SmartGauge technology -- a dashboard in new Ford hybrids that tells you when your driving is green, greener, greenest -- explain the human psychology that went into this eco-coaching technology:

"When Ford began selling the Escape Hybrid in 2004, Angie spent time with some of our first hybrid customers. She earned the nickname "The Hybrid Lady" for her work helping customers understand how their driving behaviors impact their fuel economy," Dave explains, in an op-ed for Walletpop, edited here.

"We talked to all kinds of people, from Prius drivers to Hummer drivers, from the person who wanted his hybrid car to tell him every detail of its inner workings to the one who wanted her car to be as simple to use as her TiVo. One of our favorite interviews was with an athlete who tracked everything he ate and every calorie he burned. He talked about his ideal coach: somebody who understood him, met him at his level, and encouraged him to do his best without judgment. Our challenge was to be the perfect coach for our customers, helping them learn about and love their Fusion Hybrids, and to reinforce the values that brought them to us in the first place.

"This led to a number of distinct features in the SmartGauge, an instrument cluster on the dashboard that shows them how "green" they're driving. There are four different levels of information to meet the needs of a wide range of drivers. The default level is designed to feel comfortable to drivers who've never experienced a hybrid vehicle before. It mainly shows people when their gasoline engine turns on and off, since that's the most significant difference from a conventional vehicle. The highest level shows more specific information about how the hybrid system works, and provides more tools to help drivers improve their fuel economy.

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"The most popular feature of the SmartGauge has been the "efficiency leaves". More efficient driving is rewarded with more leaves growing on the display. When the driver makes a habit of putting the pedal to the metal, the leaves disappear. We found that this feature emotionally connects people to their cars, encouraging them to drive more efficiently so that they keep the leaves they have and feel good about how well they're doing."

"It's too early to tell whether such a technology will have an impact on people's driving habits. If you're shelling out for a Ford hybrid, chances are you'll go the extra inch and adhere to your cars "eco-coaching." This sounds like the silent, green monk version of K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider, something all cars can use until we figure out how to make them run on air or sewage and finally kick our oil addiction."

I don't drive or own a car, since I live in a city with great public transportation. So share your experience driving a hybrid or e-vehicle and any methods for eco-driving in the comments section.

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