11/18/2011 07:13 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2012

Time for a New Gauge

For the first 100 years of our relationship with cars, the important metric of automobile performance has been speed. The automobile dashboard has evolved over time to reflect this relationship. No matter what type of car you drive, the modern dashboard is familiar to all drivers. There is a prominent speedometer, a less prominent clock, a fuel level, an odometer, a temperature gauge, and depending on the make and model a tachometer and turbo boost gauge.

We are entering a second era where another type of performance is gaining in importance and that is efficiency. Perhaps it is necessary for the dashboard to reflect this change.

With the recent popularity of hybrids we are starting to see a new gauge that lets the driver know their current miles per gallon. This can take the form of a dial or readout showing the driver how many miles per gallon they are getting in real time.

Anyone who has driven a car with this type of gauge quickly becomes aware that they are not a passive observer but rather become an active participant in their vehicle’s fuel efficiency. The way you drive affects your efficiency performance. With an efficiency gauge you experience this in real time. With a heavy foot you can watch your miles per gallon drop. Coast to red lights and you see your performance go up, substantially. By watching the gauge, you learn how to drive more efficiently. Driving more efficiently quickly becomes an unspoken challenge. And even if a driver for whatever reason doesn't want to take up that challenge, the gauge will always be there, ready for the driver that will.

What this gauge also shows is the limits of the EPA fuel standards. Cars just don't operate in "city" or "highway" modes and actual fuel economy reflects real world conditions more accurately than window stickers. In fact its widely known that car companies tune their cars to perform well on the EPA tests.

Perhaps a way to think about this is through our obsession with dieting. Fuel energy is just another form of calories. One of the secrets to successful weight loss is to have a scale and to use it everyday. The act of measuring ensures feedback into a calorie consumption loop. By applying this thinking of food calories to fuel calories we can begin to see the importance of a fuel efficiency gauge in all cars, not just a few to get drivers to drive more efficiently.

The benefits are clear. By putting the gauge in cars we literally will be training drivers to drive in a more efficient manner. If the gauges were made mandatory the fuel savings would be astronomical as even the most inefficient car can still be driven in a more efficient way.

The only argument not to make a fuel efficiency gauge mandatory is that it might distract drivers. With the introduction of this gauge on a smaller scale we have learned that this is not the case. One more piece of information won't be a distraction to drivers.

Incorporating an efficiency gauge in the main information display on a dashboard should be made mandatory on new vehicles. This dovetails with national interests, as well as societal consciousness about energy matters. As we enter this new era of efficiency it is inconceivable to think that we can know where are going without participating in how we get there.