Jan 19, 2009

Barriers to innovation and change: the convenience of the right choice

Alain Martin of the Professional Development Institute shared with us how people make choices and change behaviour, and the importance of making sure that the desired change is as “convenient” as possible. He illustrated his point with the vivid example of increasing gasoline efficiency by having car tires properly inflated, and how the lack of convenience made this difficult for many people.

By all measures, one of the easiest ways to save 3-4% and even up to 8% of gasoline for cars and road transportation, is to have tires inflated at the right air pressure (See, for example, John Mahler’s article) But how easy is this to do? How convenient?

First of all let's look at the messaging and public awareness. If society were really serious about saving gasoline through the correct air tire pressure, then it would drive that message to you at every opportunity, just like wearing seat belts, or not drinking and driving. Each time you drive up to a gas station to fill up, you would be reminded to inflate your tires to the appropriate pressure. When you insert your credit card, you would be reminded again. And before you leave, you would be asked whether you did. As it is now, all you are asked whether you want to use air miles, have a car wash, or use any other kind of reward points or promotion. But there is nothing to remind us about air pressure. And it would cost nothing to add that reminder to the many other useless messages that bombard you each time you buy gas.

Moreover, getting the correct air pressure in your tires is not a trivial matter. It’s not easy or convenient. To start with, you need to find a gas station with a working air pump. By my estimate, only one in four or five gas stations in the Ottawa area would qualify. Last month I had to drive ten blocks before I could find a station on Carling and Maitland with a decent air pump. And I remember the manager telling me “Oh yes, they all love me for my pump. They come from all over just to inflate their tires.”

Then you need to measure the right pressure at a given temperature. Trying to decipher those tiny graduations on a pencil extendable gauge in the darkness of a winter evening is challenging at best. Getting an air tight contact between the gauge and the tire valve with your cold bare hands while scraping off the snow, ice and salt is definitely not fun. And the few air pumps that actually have a numerical readout are generally calibrated incorrectly. So if it reads 30 psi, it could mean anywhere from 27 to 32. All very inconvenient.

You can buy a digital air pressure gauge at Canadian Tire, but generally it's tricky to get an airtight seal with the tire valve so that the gauge can measure the pressure correctly. And who knows what the minimum wage gas station attendant will actually pump at your full service gas station. You’re lucky if they wash your windshield without leaving a streak.

To add insult to injury, some automated pumps will actually charge you $.25 or more to pump air into your tires with no indication whatsoever that the resulting air pressure will be correct.

Now if we are really serious about lowering gasoline consumption, it should be easy to keep our tires inflated at the right level all the time.

But it isn’t. So it’s not surprising that while 3 out of 4 Canadians wash their car every month, only one in seven will check their tire pressure in that same period. According to a recent survey of the Rubber Association of Canada, 70% of cars on the road were found to have incorrect pressure in their tires.

Imagine what ease and convenience might look like. Each time you buy gas, a green flashing reminds you to check your air pressure (in addition to reminding you about the inevitable car wash, air miles, etc.). Gas pumps are easily accessible, well-lit, with valves that fit properly, and easy readouts. Tire pressures are easy to check. And pumps are well-maintained and calibrated at all times. And it would probably cost only a few thousand dollars investment per station to have such pumps.

Let’s go further. Imagine that manufacturers now have dependable factory installed sensors inside your cars, with a warning light for over or under inflation. The built-in pressure gauge on your dashboard is as reliable as the speedometer or tachometer. As you pump the air, it pings when you reach the right pressure for the given road condition, outside temperature or type of driving you intend to do.

Now that would be convenient! And it would be so easy in such an environment to change behaviour.

But there signs of hope. US regulations require all cars below 10,000lbs to have systems that notify the driver if tire pressure drops more than 25% below the rated pressure. Europe is considering stronger measures as part of GHG emission reductions. And some luxury cars such as the Cadillac SRX have tire pressure monitors to the nearest psi (or so they claim).

We are finally moving in the right direction of convenience.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Indication of a low tire is one thing - it still requires the driver to find an air fill station and properly fill the tire. The solution needs to be automated.

There have been a number of systems on commercial vehicles and military vehicles (Hummers) to set tire pressure using compressed air systems.

Here is an clever approach that uses simple mechanics and (as near as I can tell) no electronics.