It’s the stuff of public-relations nightmares: A self-styled “professional driver” takes a payment as high as $18,000 from a major automaker to break the law and endanger other drivers on the American road. Normally this sort of thing doesn’t happen, which is why you never heard about Alex Roy’s Cross-Country Record, Sponsored By BMW. In the case of Wayne Gerdes, however, it appears that just such a thing has happened. Volkswagen paid Gerdes to use his “special techniques” in the service of getting an unreasonably high and possibly dangerous fuel-economy number.
Did Gerdes adequately disclose his payment? It’s hard to say. He’s very close to functionally illiterate. The fumbling, incoherent manner in which he writes makes it hard to say whether he was deliberately misleading the public or simply accidentally misleading them. In conversations on Facebook, he honestly seems to believe that if you use the hashtag “#spon” on a Twitter post linking to one of his blogposts then there’s no further need to disclose cash payments that he accepted when writing said blogpost. Reading his cack-handed attempts to intimidate and threaten my brother and Mark Stevenson reveals a depth of stupidity and disconnected thinking rarely seen outside the worst of YouTube comments.
There is one aspect of Gerdes’ behavior, however, that doesn’t appear to be up for much debate: his dangerous and potentially illegal driving, as described by Mother Jones magazine.
Gerdes was profiled in article that is, by turns, fawning and contemptuous, but the real gems are hidden in the description of his “hypermile run”:
he speed limit is 55, and most of the traffic is zipping past at 75 or so, but Wayne hovers around 50 mph. He’s riding the white line on the right side of the right-hand lane. “Why are you doing that?” I ask from the backseat. “It’s called ridge-riding,” he explains, using another term he’s invented… “Buckle up tight, because this is the death turn,” says Wayne. Death turn? We’re moving at 50 mph. Wayne turns off the engine. He’s bearing down on the exit, and as he turns the wheel sharply to the right, the tires squeal—which is what happens when you take a 25 mph turn going 50. Cathy, Terry’s wife, who is sitting next to me in the backseat, grabs my leg. I grab the door handle…
Just imagine you’re a jury hearing a lawsuit against Wayne for causing a fatality or other serious accident on the road, and you hear about his gleeful “death turn” approach.
We glide for over a mile with the engine off, past a gas station, right at a green light, through another green light
This is unconscionably dangerous, particularly in cars that have power steering and brakes, like the Accord described. Could you swerve or brake to avoid a child during a mile-long engine-off glide?
He starts the truck—well, gets it rolling—by releasing the emergency brake and putting the gearshift in neutral before jumping out and pushing the 3,330-pound vehicle down his sloping driveway with the engine off. He jumps in and, without braking, turns right, swerves around a dead skunk in the road, and then takes a left turn—again without braking—to a stop sign.
This is occurring in a suburban neighborhood that’s presumably full of children.
As we’re driving out of the parking lot, Wayne comes to the top of a small hill and tells me he’s doing a fas. “What?” I ask. “That’s a forced auto stop,” he says, which is putting the car in neutral, turning off the engine, and gliding. It’s illegal in some states—with the engine off, you can lose your power brakes after a few pumps, and with older cars, you can lose your power steering—but it’s a favorite driving tool of many hypermilers… Wayne loves acronyms almost as much as he loves FE (that’s fuel economy). d-fas is a “draft-assisted fas,” which means fasing while you’re tailgating an 18-wheeler to reduce air resistance.
I remember doing a “d-fas” once, seventeen years ago, trying to get my YZF600 to a gas station on an empty tank. Of course, I wasn’t earning $18,000 from Yamaha doing it, and I wasn’t bragging about “$50,000 in consulting” the way Wayne’s been bragging. Speaking of bragging: here’s Wayne, discussing his “three grand slams in a game” hypermiling feat:
“I was going about 70 miles per hour catching up with a truck, in the late evening, and I had a tail wind. I went into a d-fas, down the bowl over the top of a hill, and I coasted almost three and a half miles. It ended at 40 miles per hour…. It was a once-in-a-lifetime. I’ll probably never experience it again. The hypermiling gods were with me.”
I’m not aware of any road where you can legally do both 70 and 40 miles per hour. But the money shot is coming up; it’s time for Wayne to play chicken with a semi.
At one point in our drive, Wayne approaches a truck to ride its draft. The wind whipping around the semi buffets the Insight, which weighs just 1,800 pounds. I offer Wayne some cashews, and as he takes a handful, his foot comes off the pedal slightly and the Insight drifts a few car lengths back. A black Infiniti suv squeezes between us and the truck. Wayne rides its butt. The Infiniti moves back into the left lane and zips away. “We pressured him so we could get our target back.” I offer him more cashews, but he declines. “I have to pay attention,” he says. He creeps back toward the truck. We’re at two car lengths…. Wayne takes a call from some friends in another car…. One car length…. I thump an imaginary brake pedal with my foot, just like my mother used to do while riding with me. Wayne, not a touchy-feely guy, puts his hand on my leg to reassure me.
So he’s one car length back from a semi-trailer with his hand on a guy’s leg. Let’s do some math. At 65 mph, you cover fifteen feet in sixteen-hundredths of a second. The average reaction time for humans is 0.25 seconds to a visual stimulus, 0.17 for an audio stimulus. Driving an Insight one car length away from a semi-trailer, Wayne is essentially driving blind. If the semi steps on his brakes hard, Wayne will hit him and kill his passenger and possibly himself. I’m not sure that’s really considered a loss — who would miss this mook? — but at that point he’s freed a driverless car to swerve and bash around the freeway. That’s how multiple-fatality accidents occur.
Of course, if breaking laws on your own time disqualified you from being an automotive journalist, virtually nobody would be able to take the job. If breaking laws in a press car disqualified you from being an automotive journalist, very few people could keep the job. Do you think that the people who are handed keys to a Z06 or an Aston Vanquish for the weekend always hold it at the speed limit or below?
The difference is when an automaker specifically pays a “journalist” to break the law. Wayne’s unorthodox techniques wouldn’t stand up in court. If he kills a family dicking around on the freeway at 40mph or doing a “D-fas” behind a truck that then stops short and turns his Passat or whatever into an unguided child-murdering missile, the liability won’t stop with Gerdes. It will attach to everybody who wrote a check: the tire manufacturers, the fuel manufacturers, and the auto manufacturer. It’s an ambulance-chaser’s dream.
My advice to the automakers who are planning to give Mr. Gerdes $50,000 in the next two years for feats of illegal hypermiling? Better put a little extra cash in your legal rainy-day fund. And if you have children who live in Wayne’s world, make sure they know to stay out of the way of the crazy man pushing his perfectly functional Ford Ranger down a hill at them, okay?