Japan: Excessive Idling v. Start-Stop EcoDrivers

by Benjamin Jones on June 5, 2009

These last two weeks in Japan I have been painfully aware of two competing types of Japanese drivers: the sleep in the car for 4 hours while it is idling on the side of the road driver and the fuel conscious ecodriver the stops the engine at traffic lights.

The Idler

The Idler is a quintessentially Japanese phenomenon. It may be a taxi driver, construction worker, or just someone eating just-purchased food outside of the convenience store.

Generally you will find the Idler in a parking lot or alongside a less travelled road with the windows up, A/C on, laying back in their seat with their feet up on the dashboard. Depending on what the Idler has for obligations, he might do this for hours at a time, especially if it is a taxi driver trying to keep the cab cool for possible passengers.

Several places in Japan have made this sort of practice illegal because of the pollution and waste of several hours of idling, but it is still incredibly common.

The EcoDriver

Surprisingly, there are also quite a few EcoDrivers in Japan. At first I thought everyone just drove around madly because they had such small cars they got good gas mileage anyway, but I quickly realized that was not the case.

Many times while waiting at stop lights I have heard to roar of engines starting back up when the light goes green. Even some of the city bus drivers are cutting the engine when idling at a light for a long time.

Even more surprisingly, people practice engine off coasting down hills. The other day I was biking out in the countryside to visit a friend of a friend’s tea house, and when returning down the mountain I was tucked in behind a truck with a motorcycle at about 35 mph. When we got to the bottom of the hill a few miles later, the motorcycle’s engine suddenly started up and the ride took off. I didn’t even notice he had the engine off!

Today, in fact, when driving with the owner of the guesthouse I am staying at, I noticed his habit of putting the (automatic) van in neutral when coasting or waiting at stops. Though he doesn’t drive a particularly efficient vehicle or express any concern about gas mileage, he does this simple thing as if it is common sense.

So, are Japanese drivers fuel wasters or fuel savers? I’m not ready to make that conclusion just yet, but it seems that common sense driving practices here have a larger fuel efficiency component than they do back home in the U.S.

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1 Randy June 5, 2009 at 8:19 am

With an automatic transmission, is it better to coast in neutral or in gear? Why?


2 vet June 5, 2009 at 8:45 am

I remember reading something by the CarTalk bros. regarding shifting to neutral in an automatic when stopped…as I recall, someone asked if that practice really saved gas or not, and the CarTalk guys said it put more of a strain on the transmission than was worth whatever gas it might have saved.

I’m also curious about coasting in an auto – you’d think that you don’t have this ghost load of the torque converter if the engine is decoupled by being in neutral, right? But given how auto trannies are designed to coast in gear…how has transmission design dealt with that?

3 Benjamin Jones June 5, 2009 at 9:28 pm


In this case it is better to coast in neutral because he gets a longer coast up to the light, and it is smoother in his car. Depending on the auto, you might be able to engine brake with the auto, which might be useful, but that depends on your car and things.

4 Benjamin Jones June 5, 2009 at 9:30 pm

I am not sure why they would think being in neutral would strain the transmission…But it does save fuel anyway. It would be better to shut off at lights but that is a bigger step anyway.

Coasting in neutral is a weird, transmission specific question that I cant give a general answer to. However, the trend in modern cars does seem to be towards a more neutral friendly automatic transmission. The Smart Fortwo even shuts off the auto-creep transmission feature when stopped. Somehow, 🙂

5 vet June 6, 2009 at 9:54 am

I think what I meant was, Tom & Ray’s point was the frequent shifting back and forth from N to D puts undue wear on the transmission…not the act of being in N in itself.

Maybe the Smart 4-2 goes into neutral when stopped…if I’m understanding “auto-creep” correctly…who knows.

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