To There And Back Again - An Insight Odyssey
By Bill Moore
I decided to drive to Detroit to cover EnV 2001 rather than fly for a couple of reasons. One was I figured it would be a lot cheaper than flying. It would also give me a chance to visit my daughter in Iowa City, breaking up the 700 mile trip one way into more manageable segments. And most importantly, it would let me test the cross-country capabilities of my little two-seater.
Having put almost exactly 1,600 miles on the car during this trip from Omaha, Nebraska to Detroit, Michigan and back, I discovered that it comes pretty darned close to living up to its billing as the world's most efficient gasoline-powered production vehicle... if you know how to drive it. But more on that later.
I finished uploading the next edition of EV World to our web site Saturday morning, June 9th. My plan was to drive the first 250 miles from Omaha to Iowa City that afternoon and spend the night at my daughter's new condo. She is a graduate student at the University of Iowa where she is seeking a doctorate in immunology and microbiology. I figured it would take me about three and a half to four hours to make the trip. It would also be the first time I had taken the Insight on a long road trip since I bought it last fall. We arranged for me to arrive in Iowa City by 5 PM and then go out to dinner just off campus.
I packed my bag and loaded my cameras, video and audio gear into the car. As an after-thought, I also threw a couple of audio books and a cooler of Coke and water into the car, along with a lap top computer and other assorted equipment. I then kissed my wife goodbye and set out for eastern Iowa.
I had about 3/4 of tank of gas in the car so I decided not to fuel before leaving Omaha. I figured I could easily reach Iowa City with the six to seven gallons of fuel I had on board.
I couldn't have asked for a nicer day for a cross-country drive. It was about 75 degrees (F) outside and mostly sunny. The verdant green fields and rolling pastures of Iowa gleamed bright in the afternoon sun, so I drove with my windows down, music blaring and the air conditioning system off.
Highway traffic was moderate for a Saturday afternoon. Interstate 80 is one of America's major east-west arteries and there were a lot of commercial trucks on the road, most of them running at the posted speed limit of 65 mph with an occasional outlaw passing me doing 75-80 mph. I tried to keep my speed at about 70 mph. Here cruise control would have been nice, but it wasn't necessary.
I very quickly settled into the relaxing routine of motoring up one long western Iowa swell and down the next. It's about 120 miles from Omaha to Des Moines in the middle of the state. It is a very bucolic drive, occasionally disrupted by the pungent odor of a windward hog farm. It is also a drive sadly punctuated by the frequent remains of deer carcass lying along the edge of the highway. There had to be a dozen or more dead whitetail deer between Omaha and Iowa City, and that was just on the east-bound lane. I would see similar causalities alone I-94 in Michigan.
Gradually the Insight electronically ticked off the passing miles and slowly the fuel gauge moved past the halfway point. By 4 PM I was within thirty minutes of Iowa City and still showed a quarter tank of fuel left. I pulled into a newly opened rest stop to answer the call of nature and shoot a few frames of video. I was averaging by now 63.9 mpg. While most people would be very happy with this, I was a little disappointed. I was hoping to get closer to 70 mpg or higher.
Reunited with my daughter Carissa, we went out to dinner and then visited her research lab. We spent the remainder of a pleasant evening chatting about her new cat and how she planned to decorate her condo, once her mother had given her approval.
I was on the road again by 7:30 AM, after sipping a couple cups of coffee. I decided to refuel the Honda just west of Davenport in Walcott, Iowa. It took 8.87 gallons of fuel ($1.58/gal) to top off the tank. I reset Trip Meter B (the Insight has two different trip meters plus the usual odometer). After rejoining the Interstate, the digital readout indicated 55.5 mpg where it remained for the next 20-30 miles.
Crossing the Mississippi River and motoring into Illinois, I decided that it was time to see what a little judicious "semi-surfing" might do to improve fuel economy. I slipped in behind a rig pulling a loaded flatbed trailer who was maintaining a pretty steady 70 mph. I carefully inched my way into his wake, experiencing a little mild buffeting. Almost immediately, I could sense the difference as I let off the accelerator and watched the Honda mpg readout jump from a steady 50+ mpg indication to nearly 75 and higher at times. Letting a big, 18-wheel semi run interference for you really makes a difference. Gradually, the average mpg began to increase with each passing mile. Halfway across Illinois, I was actually showing 70 mpg, and briefly 71.2.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Chicago, I slipped around my "friend" and headed into the perpetual construction zone that is I-80 south of the Windy City. A sign warns of "Extensive Delays". Fortunately, the delays around noon on a Sunday weren't very long.
By about 1 PM, I had driven through the northwestern corner of Indiana and entered Michigan, stopping again to answer nature's call and to also ring up my wife. I was halfway to Detroit for this leg of the trip and had barely used a quarter of tank of fuel (2.5 to 3 gallons for more than 220 miles.).
The rest of the trip across southern Michigan on I-94 was fairly uneventful. I kept up a steady 70-75 mph and a rock solid 69 mpg, without resorting to "semi-surfing." One of the more interesting parts of the trip was the stares that I got from passengers in every other car that passed me or that I passed. This was a reaction that I hadn't experienced in either Iowa or Illinois. I suppose it is because Michigan's economy is so closely tied to the auto industry that drivers there are more aware of unusual car designs than in the other states I crossed.
After a couple of miss cues and a cellphone call to the hotel for directions, I arrived at the Double Tree hotel in Southfield, a suburb of Detroit. Total mileage for the day was almost exactly 450 miles. I had used just over half a tank of fuel. Call it six gallons.
Apart from taking the Insight to go out for dinner a couple nights, I left it parked outside the hotel, using the Allison hybrid bus to shuttle back and forth to Lawrence Technical University, about 5 minutes away. I was tempted to drive it over to the conference so there'd be at least one production hybrid on display. Neither Honda nor Toyota participated in the conference this year, so there were no Insights or Priuses to test drive.
The Thursday morning after the conference closed, I drove out to DaimlerChrysler's Liberty Technical Center, housed in an unmarked building located in a non-descript industrial park in Rochester Hills, five miles south of the corporate center in Auburn Hills. Before meeting my 11 AM appointment with Ken Mack, I filled the car with 8.003 gallons of fuel ($1.79/gal) and went to have breakfast at a nearby restaurant the Amoco Station attendant recommended.
By 12:30 PM, I said my good byes to Max Gross, my PR "minder" at the Liberty Tech Center and got on the road again, deciding the avoid the construction delays of I-75 in favor of the traffic delays of M-59 through the northern fringes of suburban Detroit. A hour later and 30 miles west of Pontiac, I picked up Highway 23 and headed south to Ann Arbor where I rejoined I-94 for the trip back west.
The day was hot and sultry, the kind that precedes later afternoon thunderstorms, so I closed the windows and turned on the air conditioning. I inserted tape one of "How The Irish Saved Civilization" and sat back for the long ride back to Iowa City and the comfort of my daughter's bed (she graciously sleep on the sofa both nights).
I always thought the truck traffic between Omaha and Lincoln was terrible, but trust me here, its twice to three times worse on I-94. Someone should figure out a way to electronically link them into one long train. While I tried "semi-surfing" briefly a couple times, I was concerned that the density of traffic was just too high to risk it for any prolonged period of time. Besides, I wanted this part of the trip to be more relaxed as I listened to tales of Rome before the fall and Ireland before the Vikings. My gas mileage settled on 55 to 56 mpg as I bucked a steady headwind.
By around 4:30 I was reaching the eastern outskirts of Greater Chicago and much to my amazement, experienced only a couple very brief slow downs. I can't say the same for the traffic headed eastbound. Here three lanes of traffic were backed up for miles and miles. Those poor souls were experiencing those "extensive delays" the signs warmed me of.
By 5PM I was on the other side of the city and headed for Joilet. I was also right on schedule to arrive at my daughter's by 8 PM as I had planned. However, far to the west, thunderheads were building, warning me of the violent weather that had caused extensive damage back home in Nebraska the day before.
Thirty miles east of Davenport, I ran into the wall cloud.
Suddenly the bright sunny day evaporated into a wind-driven gale that literally knocked a half-dozen semis on their sides and forced dozens of motorists to take refuge under overpass bridges and along the shoulder.
Undaunted however, I and the Insight pressed on. Strong headwinds and gusting crosswinds buffeted the little car but barely slowed its forward progress, though I did have to down shift some and briefly eat into my battery reserve. Visibility was minimal at times.
By the time I reached Davenport, the fiercest part of the storm was behind me, replaced by a light, steady rain. I re-crossed the Mississippi on I 280 and sat back to enjoy the last 60 miles of that day's segment. I was still showing about 55 mpg.
Just before re-merging with I-80 on the northwest edge of Davenport, a police cruiser was diverting all northbound traffic off the interstate. There was no explanation why or what route we should take, so about half of us simply crossed the overpass and drove back onto the Interstate. Two miles north, both lanes of traffic where being diverted. Something bad had apparently happened and I found myself driving back south to the previous exit.
[Subsequent news reports indicated a tornado had struck a community near Davenport and heavy rains were forcing rivers out of their banks.]
I quickly checked my highway atlas and decided to take a county road west about 4 miles and then back north to the Interstate. Ten minutes later, I was re-entering the Interstate at Walcott, where I had refueled the Honda five days earlier. The rest of the 50 miles into Iowa City was uneventful. I had listened to four of the six audio tapes in "How the Irish Saved Civilization." I bunched that tape out and drove the rest of the way in quiet reflection.
I stopped at a Steak 'n Shake for dinner since I was arriving too late to have dinner with my daughter. I refueled the Honda, putting in 8.945 gallons of fuel ($1.65/gal) and drove over to her place to spend the night. She gave me my father's day present, a set of three John Le Carre novels on... what else...audio tape.
I was back on the road at 5:30 AM the next morning, giving Carissa a quick goodbye kiss on her forehead as she groggily lay awake under her blanket on the sofa. While it was still cloudy at dawn, to the west the sky was clearing. The mpg readout was showing a rock solid, but disappointing 53.5 mpg for mile after mile.
About thirty miles east of Iowa City, I decided that it was time to "semi-surf" again. I slipped into the wake of passing semi and settled down to my routine of playing parasite. My first "host" kept a nice steady 65 mph, which in the absence of having any coffee that morning, was just fine by me. Ten miles further on and after the sun was up, I dropped in behind a passing semi doing 70.
I played this game most of way to Des Moines, a distance of about 90 miles from Iowa City. By the time I reached the state capitol, I was back up to 63.9 mpg, the exact same mileage as my trip east across the state.
Somewhere between Des Moines and Omaha, my "Maintenance Required" light came on and gave me a brief moment of fright. I quickly scanned all the other gauges and saw that my water temperature was normal, I had plenty of fuel and my battery was fully charged. The car was running like a top. I grabbed the owners manual from the glove compartment and quickly thumbed through it to find out what this light meant.
To my relief it was just an advisory that I needed to take the car in for its 7,500 mile checkup. I checked the odometer and sure enough, I had just passed 7,500 miles.
Breathing a lot easier, I put the manual back in the glove compartment (does anyone actually store gloves there?) and for the rest of the trip back home I let the Honda break its own trail, arriving back in Omaha at about 9 AM Friday morning, June 15. I called my wife on the cellphone and told her to have coffee and breakfast ready, I'd be there at 9:30 AM. My mileage was now up to 64.1.
For the entire1,600 miles, I averaged a very respectable 61.8 mpg under varied driving conditions. I demonstrated to myself that this car is just as comfortable to ride in and drive on a long cross-country trip as my Honda Accord in which I made the identical trip three years earlier while getting twice the fuel economy than that earlier trip.
I found that while having cruise control would have been nice, I didn't miss it. I found the seats comfortable for long stretches of time. The car handled well at high speeds where I briefly hit 88 mph on two occasions.
I also learned -- though I am sure Honda won't endorse it -- that "semi-surfing" can dramatically improve your fuel economy from 10-15 mpg. This clearly demonstrated to me the value of an intelligent highway system that could safely and electronically link vehicles close together in "trains," be they trucks or passenger vehicles.
But it is also a long trip and I am glad the EnV conferences are now held only once every other year. Maybe the next time I make this trip, it will be in a Ford Escape or Dodge Durango (hint, hint) or maybe one of the new hybrid Toyotas or Hondas. I suspect, though, it will be some time before any hybrid vehicle surpasses my Insight for efficiency and the sheer fun of driving from here to there and back again.
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