Give the Gift of an Extra 10 Miles Per Gallon

Rather than giving an energy-guzzling device this holiday season, here are three ways to stuff a stocking with the gift of fuel efficiency


Gasoline-wise, 2011 has been a very expensive year. Who knows what gas prices 2012 will bring? Rather than giving lovely gadgets that will only consume more energy, like everyone else, here are three ways to stuff the gift of *less gas* this holiday season.

1. Turn Your Honda Civic Hatchback into a Homemade Hybrid for just $1600.

Green gearhead Nick Rothman is an electric car renaissance guy: Fluent in Japanese, he's a certified Prius mechanic, and has built scads of plug-in hybrids at Pat's Garage in San Francisco while developing a second career in custom electric bikes. A few years ago, he started tinkering on a salvage title Honda Civic hatchback, adding an electric motor in the spot where the air conditioner goes to boost starts. He wired it all together with a bunch of off-the-shelf batteries and controllers for around $1600. Driving around San Francisco, Nick toggled his electric motor throttle and engine kill button to boost the Civic's fuel efficiency by 42 percent, which works out to an extra 10 mpg. Now he's produced a how-to book about the process which you can buy from Electric Motor Sport and soon from Amazon, where he already sells a book on electrifying your bike.

Homemade Plug In Hybrid ($40, perhaps less as a Kindle edition) is a fine gift for eco-dreamers and tinkerers. It's full of illustrations and explanations and offers interesting strategies like building a mock version of the motor from cardboard to be sure it will fit inside the hood. Practically, however, you do need to know how to fabricate a drive sprocket and a lot more to make the car. But even if you have no intention of building your own hybrid, it's an education in the state of the U.S. electrical vehicle movement. First, you learn it's possible to build your hybrid with American-made parts. Nick prints detailed comparisons of components, listing those that are made in the U.S. and those that are not. For many in the electric vehicle business, DIY also means DI-USA, and tinkerers are often willing to take on heavier components because they're part of a "Little Magneto on the Prairie" vision.

"A lot of the best electric conversion components are made in the USA," Nick says. "The concept of converting cars to electric in your garage is still a very American phenomenon. It's an American tradition to take your car and lavish time and money on it to create something that didn't exist before. The Civic has become the modern Mustang -- there are endless catalogs of after-market parts.

Out of this grand-old tradition of building hot rods comes a new tradition, and new industry, of building cool rods.
(Next year, you may want to just give your loved ones all of your old coffee grounds. Here's a British car powered by gasified coffee grounds that averaged 66 mph in September.)

Option 2: Have a Hypermiling Holiday

While I was talking to Nick he mentioned that he'd been experimenting with ecodriving -- a way of driving to increase gas mileage -- and found he could sometimes get an extra 8 to 10 mpg out of his Honda Fit. The key, he says, is to invest in a feedback gadget, like this Scangauge, ($95 and up) which plugs into your car's computer system to tell you how much mileage you're getting out of every gallon and every tank. Then read up on the tricks of the hypermilers. Hypermiler Wayne Gerdes says he got 67 mpg from a 2009 Toyota Corolla XRS that the EPA has rated at 25 mpg. Some hypermiling moves are easy -- turning off the car when you're idling. Others -- like dramatically changing the rhythm of your driving patterns in traffic -- may require a personality transplant. Nick says he's found that almost everyone changes they way they drive when they adjust the Scanguage's feedback to show how much they're spending on gas every day. (If you add that daily cost of gasoline to the daily cost of insurance and the daily cost of auto financing, you may just want to try option three, below.)

Option 3: Where possible, get a bicycle, a pair of shoes, or a bus pass, and wrap it up in a very large box labeled "new car."

Image: Reuters.