RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
With gas prices forcing many to rethink driving habits, there's a group of car owners on a quest for the, quote, "ultimate in fuel efficiency." They're called hypermilers. These drivers claim they can double their gas mileage just by changing their behavior behind the wheel.
Patrick Madden of member station WAMU went out with a group of them.
PATRICK MADDEN: I meet Kent Johnson in a parking lot outside Laurel, Maryland. He's leaning against his red Chevy Aveo hatchback holding his right shoe.
You drove here with one shoe off?
Mr. KENT JOHNSON (Hypermiler): Right. The accelerator foot, so that you can feel the pedal pressure a little bit easier. You know, when you're trying to eke that extra little bit, then just small things can add up.
MADDEN: Most of Johnson's techniques are simple: slow it down, ease up on the accelerator, coast in neutral down hills.
Mr. JOHNSON: You know, I drive with my shoe off. That's extreme.
MADDEN: But extreme is what Johnson and the hypermilers are about.
Mr. CURTIS ADAMS (Hypermiler): Switching from driving - we'll call it normally - to hypermiling is a huge shift in thinking.
MADDEN: Curtis Adams is a clinical psychologist. He started hypermiling about six months ago.
Mr. ADAMS: Some people do it for environmental reasons. That's not at the top of my list, honestly. The environment I'm concerned about is my wallet.
(Soundbite of car starting)
MADDEN: To gauge my skills the groups sends me out with Adams on a ten-mile loop. He promised not to critique any of my abnormal driving habits, but as I park my large gas guzzling SUV after our trip it becomes too much.
Mr. ADAMS: See now, we wouldn't park like this ordinarily. I fussed at Andy for doing this. So you're wasting gas by backing up, whereas there are parking spaces over there where you can head out. So you can pull all the way to the front of the space. When you come out, put the car in gear and head straight out. You don't have to back up and waste gas.
MADDEN: That's the way we should've parked?
Mr. ADAMS: Absolutely. That's where I would've parked.
MADDEN: After my terrible parking job, Kent Johnson greets us for the moment of truth. The group had installed a miles per gallon meter in my car for the short trip.
Mr. JOHNSON: What kind of numbers did he get?
Unidentified Man: So your trip miles per gallon were 21.1 miles per gallon.
Mr. JOHNSON: And you were thinking eight miles per gallon. Look at that. Look at that.
Unidentified Man: And there were periods of coasting where he was getting 111. And there was one period when he had that infinite mileage - 999. So...
MADDEN: The group breaks down my performance, highlighting every misstep: stop-and-go driving, too much braking, liberal use of the AC. They decide to bring in their heavy hitter, Mark Shmitz, to show me hypermiling first hand. He averages 50 miles per gallon for a tank of gas. But Shmitz has an advantage.
Mr. MARK SHMITZ (Hypermiler): This is a '06 Civic hybrid from Honda. And...
(Soundbite of engine starting)
Mr. SHMITZ: ...away we go.
MADDEN: Shmitz's eyes stay glued to the monitors on his dashboard.
Mr. SHMITZ: So I'm getting 75, 80 miles per gallon just coasting down this hill.
MADDEN: At every turn or hill instant feedback.
Mr. SHMITZ: See, now because I'm accelerating up this hill I'm below 40 miles per gallon. I'm hating life.
MADDEN: Some of his more extreme maneuvers can get you in trouble. Take this example at a stop sign.
Mr. SHMITZ: Here's a famous hypermiling stop - da-da-da.
MADDEN: What did you just do there?
Mr. SHMITZ: It was a seven-mile-an-hour roll through a stop sign.
MADDEN: What do cops call it?
Mr. SHMITZ: They'd probably give me a ticket.
MADDEN: Hypermilers say the easiest way to save gas is obeying the speed limit, but Curtis Adams admits the sluggish pace, the slow rolling stops, the shoeless pedal foot, well, it can be hard on his family. He says his wife usually takes her own car.
For NPR News, I'm Patrick Madden.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: And for tips on hypermiling go to npr.org.