Green Turismo: To save the Earth and save gas, turn cars into video games

green-turismo-to-save-the-earth-and-save-gas-turn-cars-into-video-gamesMy friend has a Tesla Roadster. For those who are unfamiliar with Tesla Motors, the Roadster is the Ferrari of the electric-vehicle world, a high-performance two-seater with more sex appeal than Mae West. How ironic, then, that my friend pines for her old Honda Insight, a dinky little hybrid that has been a commercial failure but remains a cult favorite among the green car set. Why would any sane, hedonistic California resident wish their Ferrari were a Chevy Chevette?

Because the Insight had a wonderful feature that told her how efficiently she was driving. That feature was a light on her dash that glowed green when she was driving smoothly, braking gradually, and accelerating at a moderate piece. It glowed red when she drove like a bat out of hell, braked hard, and turned sharply. While driving her clunky little Insight, her focus was on how to make that light stay green.
In other words, the Insight was a video game, but one with real world impacts. By driving her Insight efficiently, my friend could squeeze the maximum mileage out of her car and feel good doing it. Her driving life revolved around beating her old efficiency records and keeping that little emerald light glowing.

The glowing light didn't just make the process of driving more fun for her -- it was teaching also her a way of driving that would save energy across any sort of vehicle. The Tesla, by contrast, has no green light. The visceral pleasure of flooring the Tesla is intense and gratifying, but it does not encourage efficient driving behavior by any means. Granted, my friend is still more efficient on a net-net basis when she drives an electric car rather than a hybrid.

Driving More Efficiently Trumps More Efficient Cars

However, the chances of a Tesla dropping into every driveway tomorrow are about as good as the chances of Lloyd Blankfein agreeing to give the entire Goldman Sachs bonus pool to charity. In fact, on a carbon footprint basis, it might be more harmful to the planet if everyone ditched their still serviceable gas-powered vehicles for hybrids and electric cars. Making cars puts a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and it's an energy intensive process, albeit one that consumers don't see on the price tag of their vehicle.

So my friend's happy glowing green light points to an inconvenient, unsexy truth about the car industry and its rush to a greener future. While converting the industry wholesale over to electric and hybrid vehicles is a laudable goal, a far better approach to reducing both energy consumption and carbon emissions in the nearer term is better conservation in the existing vehicle fleet. And the solution is as simple as a glowing green light -- turn every car into a video game and use the innate competitive nature of humans to decrease the 33% of U.S. carbon emissions coming from cars and light trucks.

The business model is simple. Build a glowing green light that can plug into the vehicle sensor systems for most cars and can tell the driver how well they are driving. Layer on information that turns the experience into more of an explicit game. Allow them to compete against other drivers for most efficient trip, to set efficiency goals, to have interactive voice prompts warning them of bad driving behaviors or suggesting improvements. Turn the entire driving experience into an energy-efficiency game. Then link this game to a cell phone or some sort of data sharing network to create a truly multiplayer experience. Allow users to form groups. Perhaps give groups awards or prizes or discounts for higher efficiency ratings. Driving more efficiently also means driving more safely, so insurance companies might be willing to pay drivers to put these systems in their cars.

Fun to Play, But Not Distracting

GPS maker Garmin (GRMN) already gets it. They just released EcoRoute, a nifty piece of software that loads on Nüvi GPS devices and gives drivers suggestions on most fuel efficient routes and better driving behaviors. The Nüvi is not designed for much interactivity, however. Some research from GPS software maker Navteq has also indicated that merely having a GPS in the car can increase driving efficiency. On a macro level, increasing use of existing efficiency technologies could result in energy savings $600 billion in the developing world alone, according to a recent article by McKinsey& Company.

That's particularly important because the developing world will soon eclipse the West in carbon emissions and fuel usage, and will continue to be more price sensitive to any sort of energy efficiency improvements for the foreseeable future. In other words, its a far cheaper and less expensive path to encourage efficiency. And the most efficient way to encourage efficiency is to rewire the brain -- a firmware upgrade served up as a fun game.

There is a risk of too much interactivity turning into a distraction. When I talked to Ann Hand, CEO of green pre-fab school building company Project FROG, she told me that maximizing the efficiency of her Lexus Hybrid -- turning off the air conditioner, reducing deceleration rate at red lights, etc -- became so distracting that she had to force herself to pay closer attention to the road. And if an ambitious game designer tried to immerse drivers in "Call of Duty" or some other all-encompassing action game, well, that might be more distracting than the 2-year-old in the back seat.

But let's be honest. Driving a car, in and of itself, requires some small degree of multitasking. Everyone looks at the dashboard, the radio (or iPod) and indicator lights. And from talking to my Tesla owner friend, I got the distinct impression that any mechanism that encourages mindful driving also encourages safer driving. She misses her green glowing light. I would love to put one on my old Honda Accord 2002, a 4-cylinder workhorse that I refuse to trade in because the mileage is too low. I assume there are more of us out there who just can't wait to drive more slowly and maximize our efficiency. Game on.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at
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