Before Akshay Dodeja stopped to fill up the gas tank of his Acura Integra, the 22-year-old Portland, Ore., computer engineering student checked his cell phone. There, he found the cheapest gas from a list of 10 stations in the area. So in the end, he paid $3.63 a gallon - compared with the $3.80 that the most expensive station was charging.
Getting the best deal on gasoline used to be a matter of comparing prices posted at stations on opposite street corners. But with fuel taking a bigger bite out of budgets, some drivers are obsessed with finding the best possible price in a wider geographic area. And fueling that obsession is technology.
Web sites that compare gas prices at different stations have been around for years, but the offerings are becoming more sophisticated. In addition to gas prices delivered to cell phones, some Web sites now offer fuel consumption calculators, scout out sources of alternative fuels and even explore mass transit options.
For some, technology helps them get more mileage out of their money. Gasoline prices are up about 16 percent so far this year, to $3.645 on Thursday. That's about 18 percent higher than this time last year. Analysts are suggesting the price could hit $4 before the summer driving season is over.
It was in a Facebook discussion group that Mr. Dodeja first learned about a free gas-price search program made by Mobio Networks Inc., a Cupertino, Calif., company that creates mobile-phone applications. He downloaded the application onto his phone, punched in his postal code and got prices at nearby gas stations compiled by GasPriceWatch.com. It even provides a map to make finding the station easier.
Other applications are called widgets - a continually updated tool on a user's computer that monitors local gas prices without requiring a visit to a separate Web page. One such widget, available free from Automotive.com, a Web site operated by Source Interlink Media Automotive Digital, has been downloaded thousands of times in the past year, says the company's chief executive, Josh Speyer.
Independent designers Jason Barry and Eben Eliason created a free gas price widget exclusively for Apple Inc. computers. Available at interdimensionmedia.com, the application allows users to plug in their car mileage, gas tank size and current fuel level information. The widget then analyzes how much farther a driver can travel on the remaining fuel and how much it will cost to fill up. It also compares the price at a particular gas station with the average price in the area, to help drivers decide whether it's worth driving a few extra miles for the savings.
On the Web, fuel calculators are available for both Mac and PC users - one of them through MapQuest's gas price site at gasprices.mapquest.com. Christian Dwyer, MapQuest Inc. senior vice president and general manager, said he recently used it to figure out that at about $600, he'd rather fly his family to San Diego from Denver this summer than pay $400 to drive there in his Honda Pilot.
Dwyer is thinking of adding an online tool that will help travelers build a gasoline-station itinerary for their road trips based on price levels.
Other new online tools make it easier for consumers to dump their gas guzzlers. For people who are in the market for a more fuel-efficient car, Fueleconomy.gov, a Web site run by the government, allows users to compare fuel efficiencies of different cars.
Gas price Web sites also are beginning to offer information for those looking for stations to fill up their car with alternative fuels, such as E85, a fuel that contains 85 percent ethanol, or compressed natural gas.
When he bought his Honda Civic GX, which runs on compressed natural gas, Todd Clements of Orange County, Calif., had trouble finding out where to fuel up, so he decided to create a Web site himself: AltFuelPrices.com. Like many of the gas price Web sites, his relies on volunteers to update the prices. A quick search on the site reveals that compressed natural gas sells for less than $3 a gasoline-equivalent gallon in most of California, where he lives. Now, says Clements, "every time I fill up, I actually smile."
Will Carpenter is using the Web to cut out fuel consumption altogether. Google Inc. has teamed up with public transit authorities all over the country to provide directions for using public transit to get from point A to point B. Carpenter has been using the bus to get around on weekends since he discovered Google Transit was available for Milwaukee, his hometown. "Prior to that, I'd never used the bus. I didn't want to take the time to figure it out," he says.
He calculates he saves around $15 every weekend by taking the bus instead of driving or taking a cab.