Jerry Nixon @Work: Software lessons from a hybrid

Jerry Nixon on Windows

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Software lessons from a hybrid

About a month ago, I was in the camp of rolling my eyes at hybrids on the road. To me their motivation was to save the planet. Well, it’s a big planet and a few hybrids aren’t going to supplant the egregious impact of a single volcano’s eruption. But then I started calculating my monthly spend on gasoline. My oversized sport utility vehicle and my turbo-charged crossover were fun, but expensive.

It’s easy math; a hybrid with a pathetic 13-gallon tank can drive farther than both of my other cars combined. Even though nothing is really created equal, hybrids have advanced enough generations for most to be similar enough that the brand you buy is mostly preference and price. I do some serious driving, so I decided to treat this adventure like a science experiment.


Gas prices have nowhere to go but up. That’s what I think. And I think we all sort of know it’s true, too. They go up, they go down, but generally, they go up. Right now, it’s more than $75 to fill my truck’s tank. Even with the new fields in the Dakotas, I expect some new federal tax or offshore market manipulation to keep the trend higher than low. I’m no economist. It’s not writing on the wall or insider information, just a feeling.


Darth Vader’s bathroom

For such a modestly sized car at such a humble price, the onboard electronics are out of this world. I now carry with me wherever I drive the most sophisticated consumption measurement computer I have ever seen. It calculates the blending of kilowatts with the gasoline engine, tracks charging and cruising, and presents me with a user experience that’s more Star Trek than anything.

Did you read that Star Trek comment and wonder if I knew Darth Vader is actually in Star Wars? Did you think I confused them? Darth Vader’s bathroom is actually a quote from the original Knight Rider series and I hear myself saying it all the time.

But I like technology. More importantly, the in-dash systems are more than informative; they are changing the way I drive. It rewards me when I am more efficient, and shows the exact cost of every jackrabbit start I pull off at stoplights. No kidding, there’s even a gamification side to the whole thing where my driving can contribute to the growth or lumbering destruction of a virtual tree.


Driving down the road, those nifty green leaves grow and fall off based off the recent trend of your driving. My kids watch it like an Xbox. I watch it as a glance to see how things are going. Yep. It’s neat.


Power to the software developer

I simply marvel at the ability of these well thought out cartoons to manipulate the way I drive, and even the way I want to drive. It made me appreciate the power we, as developers, have to make a positive difference in our business and its efficiencies. How user experience can cause people to change their behavior and improve what they have been doing for years – without forcing them to do it. And, I acknowledge, even to make things worse.

That being said, there are a few lessons I have learned from my hybrid. Since I am normal American, hybrids weren’t on my radar. But, in a moment of fiduciary malaise, I found myself reconsidering what I had thought before and wondering if there might be something to all this “science”.

There’s plenty more to learn, I am sure, but I wanted to share some of my initial learnings with you here.


Speed is not your enemy

My assumption was the faster I go the worse my mileage. This is actually true, but only for excessive speeds. Normal highways speeds under 80 miles an hour are cruising speeds for a hybrid. This means that once I reach my desired speed, I can watch my real-time mileage progressively work its way back up to an unfathomably happy number.

The cost of speed, as a reminder, is influenced by several factors. My manual recommends that I don’t open my windows on the highway. It recommends that I maintain my tires and purchase mileage-oriented tires, too. The car is already aerodynamic, and I can only imagine that if I were really to obsess over this, I would insist my car be clean to boot.


Hills are not your enemy

My assumption was, because I live in the mountains, my overall mileage per gallon would suck. But, as it turns out, everything that goes up must come down and hybrid cars greatly benefit from the cruising (coasting) and braking associated with downhill driving. Is my mileage terrible as I climb these mountains? Yes. Does it average out in the end? Yes.

It is enthralling to watch the onboard computer calculate a ridiculously high mileage as I am coasting 15 miles down my mountain. I could ride my bike without peddling the same path. But even downhill, I could drive in a crazy way, degrading the high that will average out my uphill return. The lesson is simple; you have to want good mileage to get it.


Acceleration is not your enemy

My assumption was acceleration would take the most expensive power from the engine. This is actually true, if I wish to reach the speed limit in 5 seconds. Aggressive acceleration is possible, it just requires the gasoline engine to turn on and deliver. If, however, I change my expectation from 5 seconds to 10 seconds, then the battery accelerates the car to the speed limit.

It’s worth noting that some acceleration cannot be accomplished without the gasoline engine. This is especially true when climbing hills with steep grades. It’s also true when you are merging into traffic and don’t have the luxury of a slow start. To me, I am happy the car can deliver this even if it is inefficient. Sometimes you just want to go, mileage to the wind.



I had decided to purchase the BMW X1 – a six cylinder turbo-charged, 300+ horsepower rocket ship that managed to burn a gallon of gasoline every ~17 miles. The brand gave me pause, to be honest. There is something about a luxury brand. Do I want to be that guy? In that moment of pause, I was vulnerable to the power of suggestion, the idea of something else. That’s when I first saw the hybrid.

My assumption that a hybrid was expensive was wiped away by its unassuming price. My assumption that a hybrid could not have traction control was wiped away by that and several other notable features. And, my assumption that a hybrid had no climbing power was wiped away by the respectable horsepower of its gasoline engine and the torque of its supplemental electric engine.


This is only the first month of this science experiment. My only real concession was that this hybrid is not an all-wheel drive. If I am intentional in when I drive this and when I drive my SUV, will it make a difference? I’m excited about the possibilities. This could be a great new chapter or a horrible mistake. Only time will tell; but I am hopeful.