Published 4:49 pm Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Efficiencies in transportation are being avidly pursued nowadays, as gas prices have spiked this summer. But not everyone can run out and replace their buses with plug-in hybrids, nor do they have to. There are dozens of clubs and websites devoted to gaining great fuel efficiencies just by changing the driving habits and practices we use with our current automobiles.

And yes, John McCain, inflating tires to maximum safe pressure levels is on every top ten list.

For really avid driving efficiency enthusiasts like Martin, &dquo;hypermilers,&dquo; there are contests around the world which test these skills.

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Tour de Shore

Martin won the 21st Century Automotive Challenge &squo;Tour de Shore&squo; Grand Champion trophy in June. He pulsed and glided his Honda Insight to attain 124.62 miles per gallon over a 143-mile course in New Jersey in a competition run by the Eastern Electric Vehicle Club, Southeastern PA & NJ chapter.

Martin purchased his winning Honda Insight, pre-owned, just a few months ago and has not modified it.

The Insight, a hybrid, is EPA rated at 65 miles per gallon, meaning Martin was able to increase the car&squo;s fuel efficiency by 90 percent simply by practicing hypermiler techniques.

Certainly, Martin is not your average driver. He has had a lifelong interest in tinkering with efficient transportation.

&dquo;If it moves, I want to drive it,&dquo; he says.

Martin, now in his 50s, was born in the old St. Luke&squo;s Hospital on Carolina Drive and grew up on Whitney Avenue in Tryon. His father, Elwood Martin, came to Tryon in the 1930s to install equipment at the Adams-Millis Corp. textile plant in Tryon and decided to stay.

Elwood Martin worked as a policeman with the Town of Tryon, at the town&squo;s water and wastewater plants, and with McFarland Funeral Home for 30 years. He was also commander of the American Legion for years.

Jack Martin&squo;s mother, Mary, had moved from Asheville to Tryon with her family also in the 1930s. Everyone knew her parents, &dquo;Daddy&dquo; Jack and Minnie Gaze.

After graduating from Tryon High School in 1974, Jack Martin attended Warren Wilson College and then entered the Peace Corps. While serving in Nepal, he retooled a Honda Trail 90 to run on ethanol by modifying the motorcycle&squo;s carburetor to allow for 30-percent increased fuel intake.

1,865 miles on sun power

Martin has for a long time been interested in electric and solar electric power sources for vehicles. He took part in the 1999 American Solar Challenge and Sun Race, a competition to design, build, and drive solar-powered cars in a cross-country time/distance rally event.

The 2008 North American Solar Challenge teams competed in a 2,400 mile drive from Dallas, Texas to Calgary, Alberta just a couple weeks ago. The University of Michigan team won with a time of 51 hours, 41 minutes.

Martin was an observer for the 2001 World Solar Challenge, a race 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) across Australia from Darwin to Adelaide in which participants can use only sunlight as fuel.

Martin rode with the drivers&squo; crews and wrote down all his observations for judges to consider later.

&dquo;One team pulled a highly polished reflective van up next to its solar car, to increase its power,&dquo; he recalled, noting one possible infraction.

Since 2000, Martin has taught a sustainable transportation course at Appalachian State University.

The appropriate technology concentration has been part of the technology department at Appalachian for 17 years. According to the university course catalogue, it is currently the only program of its kind in the country and is likely the oldest continuing operating university program for the study of appropriate technology in the United States.

Gas powered politics

Martin created the sustainable transportation class, and claims it is the &dquo;most expensive class on campus&dquo; with expenses running to $60,000 a semester. That value is paid through grants and donations, he said.

For instance, a family donated an old diesel automobile and the class converted it to run on waste vegetable oil. Another student made a solar powered bicycle.

Martin also teaches sustainable resource management and water and wastewater management. A third of his students these days are graduate students.

Daniel Hallstrom, now head of inspections and planning for the Town of Columbus, took Martin&squo;s Sustainable Transportation class when he was a student at Appalachian.

&dquo;He did not teach us which alternative transportation choice is better or alternative fuel choice is better, but he taught us how to argue for our favorite ones,&dquo; Hallstrom recalled.

&dquo;We learned not only about the different fuel and vehicle options available, but also about the history of public policies and corporate choices that have transpired to ever promote the gasoline powered automobile. His relevant stories were endless.&dquo;

Martin told this reporter how GM had begun manufacturing the all-electric EV1 in 1993.

&dquo;It was very performance oriented, but GM quit making and actually crushed those it had made.&dquo;

In 2006, Sony Picture Classics released a movie, &dquo;Who Killed the Electric Car?,&dquo; which explores that history.

Electric cars are coming to market again, but Martin says the 2008 Tesla Roadster, an all-electric sports car which accelerates from 0-60 in 3.9 seconds and travels up to 220 miles per charge, is just a small step forward from what GM had already developed 13 years ago.

Hallstrom remembers learning about more than just cars from Martin&squo;s class.

&dquo;When we were talking about the concept of a Kilowatt Hour, he told the story of how he used his trusty backpack (which has solar panels on the outside of the pack) to jump start a friend&squo;s car. He is energetic and you can tell he has a passion for the subject matter and for teaching others about it. I never thought I would get to ride a homemade hovercraft in a class.&dquo;

Hypermiling Hummers

Martin is recognized for his expertise and was asked to review the book, &dquo;Plug-in hybrids: Cars that will recharge America&dquo; (New Society Publishers, 2006). His review is quoted inside the book&squo;s dust jacket.

So, Martin has been absorbing the concepts of efficient transportation for many years and has a leg up on most of us, no doubt. But he says most anyone can increase their mileage significantly.

&dquo;Even the owner of a Hummer H3, if he pushes his mileage from 16 highway to 22, has achieved over a 30 percent increase in efficiency,&dquo; Martin says.

Despite $4 per gallon prices, Martin says his total gas bill today is the same as when he started commuting from Burlington to Boone eight years ago, thanks to increases in his fuel efficiency.

Martin and his wife, Genie, live in Burlington, where she is a Presbyterian minister. They have three children, the oldest, April is studying opera in Europe. Dawn is a senior at N.C. State and Robert is a freshman at N.C. State.

To help support his family, Martin commutes 135 miles each way, twice a week, to teach his classes at Appalachian State.

&dquo;Ninety miles per gallon round trip is my personal best,&dquo; he says. &dquo;One hundred and thirty five miles each way would get quite expensive at today&squo;s average costs.&dquo;

Gas prices have eased back down in recent weeks. &dquo;Usage in the United States is down 850,000 barrels per day since April,&dquo; he says. &dquo;Plus India removed all subsidies, so gas prices have risen there, dampening demand. China has taken cars off the road to reduce pollution prior to the Olympics.&dquo;

But the Olympics will soon be over, and demand will rise again, Martin predicts.

Now might be a good time to start practicing your hypermiling.