Ford Rewards Efficent Driving With Leaves on Dashboard

Rising gas prices have dramatically increased Americans' interest in tailoring their driving styles to save fuel. Now auto makers are rushing to help out.

Ford Motor Co. has unveiled a new dashboard system that is supposed to help people modify the way they drive to get every last mile out of a gallon of gas.

Called "Smart Gauge," it will debut next year in the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan gas-electric hybrid sedans. The interactive system provides four levels of information display, from a basic "Journey" mode to the content-rich "Empower" level that will offer the most detail on engine performance and feedback on how to improve fuel efficiency.

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In the past, some cars and trucks had a rudimentary fuel-economy indicator, often a needle tied to how hard a driver hit the accelerator, said road-test editor Brian Moody. But now more people are becoming tuned into fuel economy as concerns grow over wildly fluctuating gas prices and as drivers become more environmentally conscious, Mr. Moody said.

The trend accelerated with the introduction of hybrid vehicles, especially the Toyota Prius, which offered a display screen that looked like a mini power plant, where rising and lowering bar graphs showed battery usage. And a conservation movement among drivers known as "hypermilers" is burgeoning, using bold driving techniques, from extremely slow speeds, to driving single-file behind tractor-trailer trucks to share the same pocket of air, a practice known as "drafting."

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Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of hybrid-vehicle programs, said in an interview Monday that the new Smart Gauge system will act as a friendly teacher, offering kudos to those who change their driving behavior to improve fuel economy. "We tried to create the ultimate coach, and good coaches are the people that don't point out the errors all the time," Ms. Gioia said. "When you get it right, they say 'Well done, do that again."'

In one of the two LCD screens on either side of the speedometer, bright green leaves will indicate how fuel-efficient the driver is. "You don't have to count the leaves," Ms. Gioia said. "But if you're in a forest of leaves, you'll know you're doing well."

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