We first met Gil Portalatin — a twenty-five year veteran at Ford — when testing the 2010 Fusion Hybrid in Los Angeles. In a fuel-economy competition against the media, Gil (an engineer by trade) effortlessly triumphed by racking up economy numbers that significantly bested the journalists and EPA estimates.
On some runs, Gil’s Fusion returned nearly 47 mpg. We immediately wanted to know Gil’s fuel economy secrets so we could tell them to you. To learn Gil’s special driving techniques, we visited his group’s modest offices in Dearborn, Michigan, the city Henry Ford (founder of Ford Motor Company) put on the map. After a brief interview that covered technical aspects of Ford’s new hybrid technologies as well as touching on a running dispute with Toyota, we went for an instructional drive. The 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid In case you missed our coverage from the 2008 Los Angeles and 2009 Detroit Auto Shows, teams of skilled engineers in and around Detroit are creating great products. Really. Some would have you believe that Detroit is incapable of engineering a tissue box let alone a competitive modern car, but those voices are ignorant. Proof comes in the form of the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, a car that demonstrates active minds are working on great cars in Detroit. The crisply styled sedan is rated at 41 mpg city, 36 mpg highway. For the record, the Fusion bests the Toyota Camry Hybrid by 8 mpg around town and 2 mpg on the highway. While hundreds of individuals contributed to the new Fusion Hybrid, Portalatin is the point man for Ford’s hybrid vehicles. AOL Autos: Least expensive hybrids
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According to Gil, whose official title is Hybrid Propulsion System Applications Manager, getting good mileage out of any vehicle goes well beyond maintenance basics like making sure your tires are aired up. Gil believes that the driver is the key to great mileage. (Drivers control the car, not the other way around.) Following Gil’s advice will help improve the mileage in any car, not just in hybrids. However, Gil also has special tips just for them. AOL Autos: How fuel grades can save you money Tip 1: Easy on the throttle, then glide Gil says, “Most people accelerate way too hard from a stop. This wastes huge amounts of energy. You’ll get much better mileage accelerating gently up to the speed limit. Once you’re at the limit, then you need to glide.” By this, Gil means releasing most of the pressure on the accelerator so you’re using the bare minimum amount of power to maintain your speed. In most cars, this will enable the automatic transmission to shift into its highest, most efficient gear. Tip 2: Anticipate traffic Gil is a keen observer, “I watch people drive and waste gas every day. Most drivers don’t pay attention to the flow of traffic. If you’re in traffic, you know you’re going to stop again, so anticipate that stop by easing off the accelerator pedal early and coasting as much as you can. Looking way down the road helps you anticipate traffic flow because you can see when traffic lights are going to change and how other cars are behaving.” Gil knows that this driving technique won’t put you in the pole position at every traffic light, but your mileage will go up, as will the life of your vehicle’s braking system components. Tip 3: Slow down on the highway Gil explains, “I drive 50 miles each way to work, so I’ve had plenty of time to study and test techniques for getting the best highway fuel economy.” The advice is not complex. Gil notes, “People just have to slow down. Unless you work in an aerodynamic lab, you don’t understand how much more energy it takes to push a car through the air at 75 mph than at 65 mph, but it’s huge.” During our drive, Gil went on to note that most cars have a “sweet spot” of efficiency between 65-70 mph, so you don’t have to drive at snail-like speeds to improve your mileage, although driving between 55-65 mph will improve mileage even further. AOL Autos: Top 10 most fuel-efficient crossovers Tip 4: Drive with the terrain, and drive smoothly Pointing out the obvious, Gil says, “It takes more energy to climb a hill than roll down the other side. So when you’re on the highway, it’s OK to lose a few miles per hour when you’re driving up an incline. You can regain the lost speed when you head down the other side.” While this tip may seem easy, it requires constant attention. Gil opines, “Some drivers will be better off just driving with their cruise control. This helps those drivers who are constantly on and off the accelerator. That kind of throttle control kills mileage. A smooth, steady accelerator pressure is much greener, regardless of the speeds you travel.” AOL Autos: See all hybrid SUVs Hybrid Tip 1: Don’t accelerate too slowly “This is something that trips up hybrid drivers; in their excitement to use only battery power, they accelerate too slowly from a stop. While super-gentle acceleration keeps the vehicle in electric-only mode, it also drains the batteries quickly, often causing the gasoline engine to come on just to recharge the battery pack.” Gil recommends this; instead of accelerating so slowly, accelerate with a bit more vigor, and then lift off the throttle. Once at speed (up to nearly 50 mph in the Fusion Hybrid), the gasoline engine will often shut completely off, leaving propulsion to the battery powered motor to maintain cruising speed. This technique yields maximum mileage. Hybrid Tip 2: Keep the batteries charged All hybrids have two fuel tanks; one holds gasoline and the other electrons (the hybrid battery pack). Both “tanks” need to be kept full to go the farthest distance, but the process for filling up on electrons is a bit different than stopping at the gas station. Gil recommends this, “Coasting and gentle braking are the fastest and most efficient way to recharge your hybrid’s batteries. On our Fusion, you can see by the gauges that when you coast or apply the brakes that the hybrid system is using the car’s kinetic energy to recharge the batteries. The longer you can coast or gently slow down, the more energy you can store. Keeping the batteries above 50-percent full extends the distance you can run on battery power, saving fuel.” Ford versus Toyota — The hybrid technology war of words There’s a rumor going around that Ford is using Toyota-patented technology in their hybrid vehicles. The insinuation is that Ford is incapable of engineering their own competitive hybrid, so they are using Toyota’s. According to Gil (and this represents the official Ford Motor Company stance) the rumor is completely untrue. AOL Autos: Toyota Prius vs. the Honda Insight Here are the facts: Gil explains, “When we started developing our hybrid system, it was the normal course of business to do a patent search. We realized that some of our ideas might infringe on Toyota’s hybrid patents. We contacted them. It just so happened that Toyota was developing some diesel engine technology that might infringe on existing patents owned by Ford. The companies decided to allow the patent infringement as kind of a trade.” But there’s more, and Gil continues, “While our hybrid technologies are broadly similar, they were not developed together. There are no interchangeable parts between Ford and Toyota vehicles, as our hybrid drive units are engineered differently and use completely unique software to manage the whole system.” Heroes are anointed their status because they do, or stand, something important. Quite by accident, Gil Portalatin has become a hero to many in Detroit.