Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mary-Jo Changes Car, Car Changes Mary-Jo

Mary-Jo has been driving her new Prius for a little more than a week now, and she loves it. It's comfortable, it's peppy, it has a stereo system with nine speakers, and best of all it's red (Mary-Jo has always wanted a red car). And of course it sends the world a message about Mary-Jo's environmental awarness. (One of Mary-Jo's colleagues at work, on hearing that she'd bought a Prius, asked her, "You're socially conscious?" I think the note of surprise in the question is faintly insulting, but Mary-Jo seems to be okay with it so who am I to complain?)

What neither of us anticipated, however, is how the Prius has changed Mary-Jo's driving habits. As you may know, the car's dashboard features a touch-sensitive screen that displays various kinds of information and can be used to control the sound system, the air conditioning, etc. Mary-Jo normally keeps the screen set to show fuel economy, and the effect is quite fascinating. The display shows the current mileage you are getting (ranging from less than ten miles per gallon to a maximum of a hundred), the mileage you've achieved in five-minute travel increments, and your average mileage over any period you want--the current trip, the last week, whatever.

As a result, driving becomes a kind of video game: How far can I get the current mileage bar to extend? How high can I get my mileage rating for this trip? Can I beat my score from my last trip? And Mary-Jo is clearly driving differently. Her foot on the gas is much lighter, she avoids fuel-draining accelerations and needless braking, and she uses cruise control on long straight stretches of highway.

These are significant changes for a woman who used to get antsy when stuck behind a slow vehicle. Now instead of changing lanes she smiles serenely as her speed drifts down toward 50 mph and her mileage bar stretches up above 50 mpg.

For me, this is a fascinating case study in how technology, which of course is shaped by humans, in turn shapes the humans who use it. I asked Mary-Jo why she has changed her philosophy of driving--after all, it's not as though she ever worried much about saving money on gas in the past. She replied, "Because now I can see how much gas I'm using."

Exactly. As the old business management saw has it, "You get what you measure." Simply providing the technology to make our behavior transparent--in this case, our energy-consumption behavior--can have an enormous impact on that behavior, even in the absence of any new or special incentives. As a society, we need to look for other opportunities to apply this insight to encouraging healthful, socially beneficially behaviors.

I knew for sure that Mary-Jo had been transformed when we heard the story about how Al Gore's son was arrested for allegedly speeding in a Prius, which was found to contain marijuana and four kinds of prescription drugs for which Gore had no presception. Mary-Jo's only response was to remark, with a sniff, "Hmm! At 100 miles per hour he couldn't have been getting very good mileage!"

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