Fuel-saving gadgets for cars: are they worthwhile?

15 February 2011

Copyright: IEA/OECD.

But are these ‘in-car feedback instruments’ easy to use? Aren’t they distracting for drivers? And can they really make significant energy savings?

Kazunori Kojima, a transport expert at the IEA, went for a test-drive to weigh-up the pros and cons of these devices. Here, he explains why they are being introduced to new cars, and offers an assessment on their merit.

What’s the background?

At present, around 87 million barrels of oil are produced and refined every day. This works out at nearly 32 billion barrels a year. This oil is used for everything from heating homes to generating electricity, but about 60% of it is currently being gobbled up by the transport sector.

The International Energy Agency projects that global demand for energy could grow by 55% between 2005 and 2030. This raises serious concerns for countries in terms of the impact this rising demand will have on the environment, as well as on energy security (the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price).

Because of these concerns, there is an urgent need to come up with different ways we can be more efficient in how we consume energy.

So how does the IEA help?

Part of the IEA’s mandate involves working with countries on energy saving initiatives. Back in 2008, we made 25 energy efficiency policy recommendations for governments, covering everything from buildings, to appliances, lighting and transport.

Within these recommendations was a section dedicated to ‘eco-driving’ – a term which describes initiatives that support using vehicles in an energy efficient way.

As well as encouraging governments to ensure that ‘eco-driving’ is a central component of initiatives that improve energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions, the IEA recommended that governments should also promote the deployment of ‘in-car feedback instruments’.

What exactly are these ‘in-car feedback instruments’?

There are many different gadgets that fall under this term, all of which have slight variations, but basically purport to do similar things. Among the most common are:

  1. The gear shift indicator for manual transmission cars, which prompts the driver to go up or down a gear at the appropriate time, so as to ensure optimal fuel efficiency
  2. The fuel consumption indicator. This device, which updates every few seconds, gives the driver information on both instant fuel consumption and average fuel consumption over a stretch of time
  3. The eco-indicator, which illuminates when the car is being efficiently driven (e.g. smooth acceleration, and cruising at a steady speed)

Do they really make any difference?

Absolutely. IEA research found that eco-driving can achieve an estimated 10% saving in current fuel consumption. When you add this to savings that can be made in other ways, such as using fuel-efficient tyres, then this could make a reduction to our carbon footprint.

Don’t they easily distract the driver?

No. These indicators are commonly integrated on the dashboard of cars, along with the speedometer and rev-gage, so they are easy to look at and understand.

With some new cars, the functions of these gadgets have simply been added to the car’s software, so appear on the multi-function LCD display in front of the driver. This is also easy to use.

While some might argue that they are dangerous because drivers may pay too much attention to them, I don’t think that is true. I found that they are simple to operate and not at all distracting.

Are they expensive for the consumer to buy?

As these gadgets are built in to the instruments panel of new cars, their price is simply integrated into the overall cost of the car. There is no separate charge for the driver.

It doesn’t take much time or money for these devices to be integrated into cars, so the effect on the overall cost of the car is virtually nothing.

It is worth mentioning that while these gadgets are most commonly integrated into the design of new cars, consumers can also choose to buy them separately if their old car doesn’t come equipped.

In which countries and regions are these devices used?

These devices are becoming increasingly common features of new cars and are now being used in most OECD member countries. (In Japan, although manufacturers of new cars offer these gadgets on a voluntary basis, in 2009 over 70% of new cars had them).

However, they are only regulated in a few:

  • In 2009, the European Union adopted a regulation which stipulates the mandatory fitting of a gear shift indicator to all new cars
  • In South Korea, the government is developing a law and budget for promoting such equipment

For more information, see the IEA Energy Efficiency Topic Page

Photo: Fuel consumption indicator. ©IEA