I'm going 50 mph down the highway in a 2008 Ford F-150 King Ranch, trying to keep up with right-lane traffic without stressing the engine beyond 2000 rpm.
"You have to pretend there's an egg under the gas pedal," says Pro Formance Driving School instructor Todd Cook.
It's not how I'd ever imagined spending a day at a Ford-sponsored driving event, but, as they say, times change. Ford thinks drivers can significantly improve their observed fuel economy through simple changes in their habits. To that end, the automaker invited us to its headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, for a short course in what it calls EcoDriving.
EcoDriving, which Ford said it developed from German drivers' education, combines many simple fuel-conserving tips with the type of instruction one normally receives in performance driving school. Ford offered a four-day trial course in Phoenix and got volunteers to improve their fuel economy by an average of 24 percent. It cut down the program to one afternoon to provide us a taste of how EcoDriving works.
After climbing into the decidedly non-eco friendly King Ranch, Cook and I went off on a short jaunt around Dearborn to get a baseline fuel economy average. He told me to drive as I normally would as we negotiated a mix of stop-and-go traffic, neighborhoods, and highways. Nevertheless, I accelerated gently, traveled at low speeds, and generally pretended my mother was in the backseat so as to provide the highest benchmark possible.
I netted 13.9 mpg - almost exactly matching the EPA estimate of 14 mpg for combined driving. Cook reset the trip computer and told me to redo the same route, but this time with some special instructions.
He told me to keep the engine under 2000 rpm whenever possible, and showed me how to force the automatic transmission into a higher gear by letting up slightly on the accelerator pedal just as we hit that magic number of revs.
He also tried to instill in me a new awareness of our surroundings. As a green light came into view in the distance, he asked me what the crosswalk signal read. A flashing hand indicated the light would soon turn, meaning I should roll to a stop. On the highway, Cook taught me to accelerate on downhill stretches and then coast up the next crest (most cruise control systems I have used do the opposite).
It was odd, almost eerie, to be driving a mammoth truck this gingerly. Fellow drivers, clearly accustomed to seeing such beasts barrel up behind their rear bumpers and bully them into the slow lane, regarded me warily before passing. The F-150 also made clear that it was not designed for such babying. Quick throttle tip-in made it hard to ease away from stoplights, and the automatic's four gears did not afford the engine much rest at highway speeds.
Still, my second trip returned 16.5 mpg, an 18.7 percent improvement over my first run. Cook said the numbers get better with more practice, something I don't doubt.
Ford director of government affairs Curt Magleby, who claimed he averages around 20 mpg in his F-150, said the automaker would be designing its future cars to help maximize the benefits of EcoDriving. The new 2009 F-150 lineup, for instance, offers a six-speed automatic and a Superior Fuel Economy (SFE) model that has less aggressive gearing.
But he added that the gains prove that drivers - and not just automakers - have a role to play in improving fuel efficiency.
"I'm driving my F-150 and I'm looking at all those people zipping though traffic in their small cars, and I think, 'I'm getting better fuel economy than you,'" he said.
Of course, this is Ford's main point. It wants customers to know that saving money on gas does not necessarily require buying a small vehicle or hybrid - two segments in which it remains vulnerable.
Ford was careful to point out it does not encourage extreme techniques like drafting behind trucks or turning off the ignition at stoplights.
"It's not like we're hypermiling the thing," said instructor Mike Speck, adding, "A lot of it is predicated on safety, with fuel economy as a big gain."
Safety aside, there are some downsides to EcoDriving. For one it won't miraculously turn your seven-seat SUV into a hybrid. Ford admits driving style is but one part of a fuel-conservation strategy that includes automakers, as well as oil producers and regulators. It's also slow. Ford estimates EcoDriving increases traveling time by about eight percent. That's not a terrible trade-off for a double-digit gain in fuel economy, but might be too much for those drivers who value their time as much as their fuel.
And of course, the techniques do not bode well for those who think their ride home should be entertaining. Ford promises EcoDriving can be a fun challenge, and Speck even likened it to racing, noting that both seek to maximize a vehicle's capabilities. Don't be fooled. EcoDriving might be able to squeeze Ford Focus-like fuel economy out of a Ford Mustang GT, but at that point the Focus would likely be more enjoyable to drive.
Ford realizes EcoDriving is not for everyone. It wants to offer the training to fleet customers and ultimately hopes to see it incorporated into drivers' education. But it harbors no illusions of Americans easing down the highway in perfect 55-mph unison.
"We're very much like, 'Hey, if you want to do this, okay, if not, that's fine too,'" Speck said.
But he added that those who reject EcoDriving and similar tactics should not be surprised when their new small car or hybrid still does not afford them good fuel economy.
"The driver ultimately does have to take some responsibility," he said.