By Matthew Raskin on October 21, 2009
Most people think all of the advanced technology in today’s hybrid cars is under the hood. While automakers continue to enhance new engines, batteries and drivetrains, they’re also working on ways to wrangle the one factor they can’t control — the driver.
To gain maximum efficiency in a hybrid, a driver must be taught to drive properly so fill-ups are few and far between. In the crop of cars we tested on our mileage drive, there were a dazzling array of displays to teach people to drive as green as possible.
The Mercury Milan Hybrid has the most customizable and graphically enhanced user interface of the four hybrids. The Milan Hybrid’s display defaults to its most extensive and informational setting, which can then be condensed by the driver. Digital meters on the left side of the instrument panel display two gauges — one for acceleration and the other for power. As you accelerate, the display shows that you are using more gas power than battery power. On the right side, an instant mpg gauge is accompanied by a graphic that shows how green you’re driving with what I call the “Efficiency Bush.” Digital images of leaves and branches appear on the bush as you drive, and the more leaves you see means the more efficient you’re driving. On the mileage challenge’s six-hour drive, it became a fun game to see how many leaves I could grow.
The Toyota Prius, like the Milan Hybrid, has many information-laden displays. To the right of the digital speedometer is a spot for a single graphical display that can rotate through a series of views. There’s a graphic outline of the car and its powertrain that’s accompanied by arrows displaying whether the wheels are being driven by gas or electric power. Next, a simple meter tracks the battery charge, power from the engine and how the driver’s current driving style is impacting mileage. Finally, a bar graph tracks the miles per gallon for the last minute, so you can see any improvements. It also can be made into a fun game of trying to beat your last minute’s efficiency.
The Honda Insight takes a simpler approach, but it’s not less informative. Next to the speedometer is an analog gauge that shows whether the driver is in an engine-assisted state or a full-charging state, instead of a digital representation like in the other two hybrids. More impressive is the digital speedometer that changes background color depending on how you’re driving. It turns green when you’re driving thriftily and blue when you’re not. The speedometer’s prominent placement above the steering wheel kept me on my toes more than the other two.
The Volkswagen TDI had absolutely no high-mileage driving aids besides the average mpg display that many cars have today. The first thing that came to mind was, well, why not? Other new cars like the Subaru Outback are adding gauges that show drivers when they’re at their best in terms of mpgs. For a car sold and promoted for its high mileage, you’d think VW would do the same.
Future hybrid tech could alter displays even further; if I was developing next-gen systems, I would undoubtedly go the route that Ford has taken with the Mercury Milan Hybrid. A fully customizable interface that is both functional and interactive can’t lose. While the Prius is highly innovative and effective, the customization option is not there, and the Insight’s is a bit too simple. The TDI could definitely use something to highlight efficiency, as well.
Even though it didn’t return the top mileage, the Milan Hybrid has what counts inside. And isn’t that what really matters?