Hybrid cars are hot right now — odds are you're seeing more and more of them around your neighborhood. Sales are on the rise — the most popular hybrid, the Toyota Prius, sold more than 107,897 units in 2005 — and nearly every automaker has a hybrid or has plans to release one within the next two years. Demand for them is on the rise thanks to their impressive gas mileage — ranging from the high 40s to the low 60s depending on the model — and significantly lower emissions. Hybrids' environmental (and money saving) benefits derive from their use of gas engines in conjunction with electric motors and batteries.
If you've heard that some hybrid owners don't get gas mileage as high as what the stickers advertise, it may be because they haven't yet learned how to best drive a hybrid. But once drivers understand how hybrids work, they can adjust their driving habits to improve their mileage — for example, learning just when to press and release the accelerator to maximize coasting on the electric motor helps improve mpg.
Amory Lovins, senior author of Winning the Oil Endgame and chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent, nonprofit think tank devoted to energy and resource efficiency, explains there are two keys to maximizing the fuel economy of a hybrid: pulse driving and brisk acceleration.
Hybrids feature regenerative braking, an innovation that allows the inertia of the car to recharge the hybrid batteries whenever the brakes are pressed. To maximize regenerative braking, Lovins recommends pulse driving. "When you see that you'll need to slow or stop, start braking gently and as early as possible so you can recover the most braking energy for later use," he says. "If you brake too late hence too hard — the mechanical brakes will override, and they simply turn the car's inertia into useless heat."
Hybrids also are a justified excuse to accelerate with vigor. "Contrary to what we were taught in driver's education, when you're accelerating up to cruising speed in a hybrid, do so briskly," says Lovins, who owns a Honda Insight that gets 63 mpg. 'The engine is most efficient at high speed and torque, so you'll use less fuel accelerating aggressively for a short time than accelerating slowly for a long time."
Also, take advantage of hybrids' computerized monitors that report your fuel economy. "Consistent with attentive driving, keep an eye on the real-time mpg display and use the feedback to improve your driving habits," Lovins says.
John Rockhold is a green car enthusiast and Contributing Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find him on Google+.