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Published: September 2008Go Green: Biofuel
Illustration: Cars driving on map

Honk If You Hypermile

The golden age of biofueled road trips is still miles away. Here’s how to drive with a cleaner conscience today.

Text by Andy Isaacson
Illustration by Stanley Hooper

It’s a cherished national tradition. It’s also a guilty—and expensive—pleasure. Americans log an average of 15,000 miles a year and churn out some 1.5 billion tons of CO2 collectively. But as gas prices rise and Arctic sea ice melts, a troubling question looms: Is it time to bid the road trip bon voyage?

Biofuel alternatives are slowly massing on the horizon, but they’re not quite ready to ride to the rescue. Environmentalists have made a clear case that the benefits of soy biodiesel and corn ethanol—hyped for obvious reasons by agribusiness—are modest compared to their drain on resources. And "alternative alternatives" with serious potential are emerging from this debate, including biogasoline, biodiesel from algae, and cellulosic ethanol from plants like poplar, willow, and miscanthus. Unlike most food crops, these types of vegetation don’t require much water or fertilizer, are highly productive, and don’t hog farmland. "Ultimately, every major urban center in the world will have some cellulosic conversion facility producing [ethanol or diesel] fuels," says Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute, an interdisciplinary group at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "The first billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol should be available within eight years."

Meanwhile, enlightened motorists like Wayne Gerdes, 46, aren’t waiting for a silver bullet. The Illinois native has developed a way to boost his gas economy to an astounding degree by using disciplined and deliberate driving techniques. Gerdes first began "hypermiling," as he calls it, the day after 9/11, to protest foreign oil dependency. "I started off not knowing anything," he says, "and then I built my own toolbox." Now he can get 48 miles per gallon out of his Honda Accord (rated at 24 mpg) and often logs 900 miles on one fill-up. In May he piloted a Toyota Prius from Chicago to New York on a single tank of gas. The key, says Gerdes, is forethought. "I’m trying to think two, three stop signs, traffic lights, turns ahead of me before I even start the car. . . . If you anticipate obstacles and potential hazards, you’re not just a safer driver, you’re maximizing your fuel economy."

While we pine for greener fuel and 100-mpg cars, the Great American Road Trip beckons. If you think and drive like a hypermiler, you can max out on action and keep your burn rate to a minimum.

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