Increasing energy efficiency most efficiently

The other day, my wife and I were out walking the dogs and we crossed a pretty major street where drivers only stop when there are people crossing. On this particular day, there was a moderate amount of traffic and as we set out across the street, several dozen cars slowed and stopped from about 40 mph, waited until we reached the other side, and then sped off. This started me thinking: how much fuel was wasted because of a simple street crossing? The energy required to stop nearly 100,000 lbs of steel and plastic from 40 mph and then accelerate back to 40 mph can’t be trivial, especially when you consider that this happens for millions of cars dozens of times every day, at pedestrian crossing, stop signs, traffic lights, etc. Couldn’t traffic systems be “tuned” for much higher fuel efficiency, by timing lights, replacing some intersections with roundabouts, and other fairly low-impact and low-cost measures?

It reminded me of one of my favorite hacks where UPS changed their routing software to be more efficient, including the simple idea of mapping delivery routes to favor right-hand turns over left-hand turns. As a result, UPS drivers spend less time sitting in the left lane waiting for the light to change, which saves fuel, and therefore saves money, to the tune of $600 million. All from a fairly minor change.

Obama took a lot of flack during the election season because he suggested that we would be better off encouraging Americans to get regular tune-ups and inflate their tires to the proper pressure than we would to increase offshore drilling. But he was right. Those simple measures can improve fuel efficiency dramatically, and yet we’re focused on solving the problem through more difficult means.

It seems that we often turn energy efficiency into some kind of Rube Goldberg machine, focusing on giant sweeping initiatives that will be incredibly difficult to implement, rather than simple solutions we can implement right now. After all, switching from gas to a hydrogen infrastructure would be a huge task. Developing new hybrid or electric vehicles is challenging, and having them succeed in the market is harder. In the long run, those things will need to be done. But how can we hack the systems and processes in our everyday lives right now? How can we introduce minor tweaks and changes that will pay off with large results?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.