Transportation Fuel Consumption in the U.S., as it is today

We’re actually at a fairly crucial decision point regarding our use of energy in the U.S. right now. Tom Friedman is discussing whether or not the U.S. should join OPEC, now that we’re bringing more oil and gas out of the ground.

But after two decades of fighting over environmental issues and global warming, the U.S. is energetically trying to lower fuel consumption, and that very much includes the gasoline at the pump.

The U.S. used about 30 quads burning liquid fuels for transportation last year. That’s almost one-third of all the energy used in the U.S. in 2011. It is also almost one-third of all fuel used for transportation in the world in 2011. That’s a lot of gasoline.

We used to be pretty good at improving gas mileage.

(Hat tip for this chart and the next to Early Warning.) In fact, from 1975 to 1990 mileage increased from 12 mpg to 18mpg. That’s the same percentage that President Obama and the EPA want us to improve by over the next 15 years. Is that realistic? The last 20 years show that we’ve only increased from 18mpg to 22 mpg, not nearly as impressive.

American vehicles are heavier and less efficient than equivalent vehicles in Europe. Europe’s fleet of cars averages 35 mpg, while America’s average is about 22 mpg. (Higher fuel prices incentivised innovation among car manufacturers and frugal prudence in European car buyers.) If we could magically raise our average mileage to European levels the amount of energy we would save would be more than 10 quads. That’s, umm, 80 billion U.S. gallons of gasoline. A year. U.S.refineries get about 19.4 gallons of gas out of a barrel of oil, so that’s 4 billion barrels a year, or 11.3 million barrels a day we wouldn’t burn. That’s how much we imported, total, in 2010.

So it’s realistic. It’s possible. And it would certainly help our balance of trade figures. And it would free up supply for the developing world, which badly needs it.

But here’s the thing. In 1975, when CAFE regulations were introduced mandating mileage improvements, mileage improved. But after the crisis, the price of oil dropped and the regulations sort of went away. Mileage stopped improving. If America is producing this oil domestically–even if prices don’t drop–will domestic energy companies resist higher mileage more strongly?

Kind of a lot more riding on this than the usual back and forth between the Energy Cowboys and the Environmental Brigades…

12 responses to “Transportation Fuel Consumption in the U.S., as it is today

  1. <>

    As well as the helping the trade deficite, that would almost free the U.S. from being dependant on imported oil.

    That would probably be a more attractive argument than “leaving a bit more for the developing world”.

  2. Damn wordpress removed the quote. Feel free to edit it back in if you wish:

    If we could magically raise our average mileage to European levels the amount of energy we would save would be more than 10 quads. That’s, umm, 80 billion U.S. gallons of gasoline. A year. U.S.refineries get about 19.4 gallons of gas out of a barrel of oil, so that’s 4 billion barrels a year, or 11.3 million barrels a day we wouldn’t burn. That’s how much we imported, total, in 2010.

  3. does miles per gallon increase mean less gallons or more miles – check out the 80s and 90s and you see it is more miles. also i believe western europe is the size of the north east plus califoriin = not a good comparison . to me the solution is in HIGH TECH engergy – of which wind, biofuels and which are not included becasue by their basic form are too difuse. we need tech money going for basic research into NANO and LENR More tech is the solution not rationing.

  4. I came on recommendation of Dr Curry, and based on this quote: “If we could magically raise our average mileage to European levels the amount of energy we would save would be more than 10 quads, ” I’m leaving disappointed. If I have to point out that raising miles per gallon just allows more miles to be driven, then you have nothing to tell me.

    • Always sorry to disappoint, JonFrum. But the rebound effect is never total, and you can’t drive more than 24 hours a day. We’ll be going into Jevons, Kuznets, Kaya and all that good stuff shortly.

  5. Good article. A point well made that isn’t made often enough. We could get our fleet average over 40 mpg within a year with current technology if we just had the resolve. The problem is that people who buy cars most frequently and buy the most expensive models have their egos wrapped up in what and how they drive.

  6. The only way we get to EU gas mileage is to drive the same distribution of vehicle sizes/types and use the emission standards. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear emission standards in the EU are not as strict as in the US. Adjusting vehicle size/type to match the EU I think is a hopeless case. People simply drive both more and farther in the US and aren’t going to put up with being uncomfortable for extended periods.

    That 50% improvement beginning in the mid-70s I would suggest was probably substantially due to conversion to less metal and more plastic reducing vehicle weight. Don’t expect to see it happen again, the low hanging fruit has been exhausted.

    The two charts seem to show an increase in mileage of only about two mpg since 1990. Did you get your 18-22 figure elsewhere? What is interesting is how the 2nd chart plainly shows the summer/winter difference in mpg due to changing the fuel blend according to time of year.

    • Koss does raise an interesting point with the observation that there is an annual variation in fuel economy. The question I have is how is fleet mileage calculated? There could be a lot things at play.
      As to the mileage improvement during the 70’s, I doubt that most of it was due to weight reduction. In fact, in the late 60’s it was possible to buy a car in the US that weighed under 2000 pounds. Today, there are only one or 2 cars that light. Also. many SUV’s and trucks are far heavier than their 1960’s counterparts. At the beginning of the 70’s there were still monstrous V8’s coupled to 2 speed automatic transmissions. My wife just bought a 4 cylinder with a six speed that gets about 3 times the mileage, better acceleration and a smoother ride that any of those gas guzzlers. Hyundai will have an 8 speed on the road within 2 or 3 years. There is a lot we could still do.

      • Marty,
        Those charts use government monthly figures for total gas sold and estimated travel for all vehicles in the country. Since travel must be a rough estimate, the figures will be somewhat crude.

        I had a both a 1970 and 1988 Tbird and I knew the 1988 one had a smaller engine, so I just looked up both of them. 1970 was 360hp, 4350lbs. only one engine available. 1988 largest of three engines was 190hp 3415lbs. About 950lb less and 7 inches narrower.

        I imagine similar changes were made for most manufacturers to increase mileage. Of course I don’t know for sure.
        YMMV 🙂

      • Koss, I had a 1967 Ford Cortina. It weighed 1600 pounds and had 55 hp. It was great. I didn’t have to hitch hike and I could ask a girl out without asking her if she had a car. One friend had a Simca at around 1400 pounds and another had an MG midget which was around 1800. They were all great. When they broke down, two of us could push them up a hill. I later got a 1972 Toyota truck. It was 2200 lbs. It got 33 mpg. I lived in the back of it for 2 years. The lightest truck for sale in the US is now around 3200. My last Toyota truck was lucky to get 26 mpg. Some cars were made lighter, but the small cars were made heavier. My 2006 Aveo was over 2500 and had the same room as the Cortina. And was just as dependable (that’s a joke).

  7. Measuring the fleet mileage for new cars is one thing and it will show a big jump over this year and the next few. Watching that migrate through to the entire fleet will take about 15 years.

    As composites start being used more for principal body parts and components, the weight should start to decline again.

    My personal prediction is that the U.S. fleet actually will average 35 mpg by 2030, and quite possibly a lot earlier. If government, rental cars and large corporates like UPS and FedEx get on board, the change will be quick and dramatic. And it looks like that’s happening. Every taxi I’ve been in so far in 2012 has been a Ford Fusion hybrid.

  8. the fuel pump needs replaced since that is where the ssnoer is. This si a $700 repair, and he advised that the car will still run without replacing th efuel pump. The gauge just isn’t trustworthy. My thoughts are 1) If fuel pump is failing, car won’t run for long. 2) Does he know what he is talking about or is he trying to sell me a pump I don’t need? 3) Will an error code scan, tell us anything more about the fuel delivery system?

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