I had an argument with a friend whose opinion I respect. Actually, I didn’t know I was having an argument until he told me he was furious.

He needed a lift to pick up his motor bike from the mechanic, and I was happy to help out at the end of my day’s work, renovating my house at Moora Moora. I drove the way I always do, which includes certain tricks that save fuel.

On the downhill stretches, when the engine is still cold I leave the car in gear, but turn ignition off. Naturally, this is only possible with a manual gearbox, which is one reason I choose not to have an automatic. My car is then propelled by gravity, with the engine acting as a brake.

When the engine is cold, the auto choke is active, raising revolutions. I am using fuel to force me downhill faster than I want to go, so I need to brake more than with a warm engine. This is a double waste. By switching off ignition, I can go slower, just as safely. The power-assisted brakes use the partial vacuum within the engine rather than electricity, so braking ability is not impaired. There is no power steering, but I have never found that to be a problem.

My friend equated this with “angel gear,” which is a good term for going downhill in neutral. He was terrified for his safety, and hence his anger.

I tried to explain that the two situations are different. I still had full control of steering and brakes. The only thing missing was the ability to accelerate, which is unnecessary when going downhill. He was too upset to listen, and told me that, no matter how desperate, he’d never again get into a car I was driving. He said, “So you’re risking my life to maybe save a litre of petrol a week? That’s crazy!”

I wasn’t risking his life, but he was too upset to listen. I was upset too, because I like him and the last thing I wanted to do was to give him distress. This of course made me drive worse than usual, which confirmed his feeling of being at risk… the usual cycle that fuels arguments.

When I got home, I emailed him an apology — not for my driving trick, but for its effect on him. And I got to thinking. At the moment, with driving up and down a mountain 4 or 5 times a week, I save a lot more than a litre of fuel a week. But suppose it was only a litre. Would that make my actions (safe or not) ridiculous?

No. The state of our planet is such that every action is either a step toward survival, or a step toward suicide. If a million people saved a litre of fossilised carbon a week, that would be one million litres. All I can do is the best I can do — to contribute to disaster, or to contribute to deferring it a little longer.

No action is insignificant, no action is too small. If all of us considered the question, “How can I do this in a way that decreases my environmental impact?” with absolutely every action, then the life on this planet would have a chance.

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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3 Responses to Downhill

  1. Gary Clough says:

    Hey mate, there is not that much wrong with angel gear. I drive a 1 ton truck loaded with my equipment, so it’s HEAVY. I can’t do your trick when the engine is cold because it’s an automatic and the wheels just spin free. But, on the highway when traffic is light, I put it in neutral on top of a hill and let her rip. It’s a billycart for big boys, like. And I can turn the key and restart in neutral when it starts to slow.


  2. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Thank you for the kindness to comment, Joan. This situation is radically different. What you did was more like “angel gear” then what I do daily, without having crashed once.


  3. Joan Y. Edwards says:

    Dear Bob,
    Sorry that you and your good friend had a little disagreement. Many times when I was in college, I had to jump start my car by rolling it down the hill. It was a fun experience on one hand and scary because the car might not start. Luckily brakes do work in those circumstances.

    I hope everything is straightened out between you.



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