New cars are getting more fuel-efficient every year. Engineers are deploying all kinds of whiz-bang technology to achieve these gains. But the no-brainer most effective and immediate way to reduce our fuel use is, drum roll, to drive less.
And that’s exactly what is happening on a per-capita basis, for the past eight years in a row and counting. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), the average American drove 37 fewer miles in 2012 than in 2011—a 0.4 percent drop. Vehicle-miles traveled per person had reached an all-time high in 2004, but has declined each year since then— for a total decrease of 7.5 percent.
How do you explain this drop? Well, it wasn’t exactly a conscious eco-decision from average Americans. Instead, researchers point to the downturn in the economy, less driving by retiring Baby Boomers, less enthusiasm for cars among young drivers, and better urban planning that provides opportunities for walking and biking.
Improvements in fuel-efficient technology take time to percolate through the entire fleet, so even big jumps in average fuel economy—say 20 percent—would only result in about a 1 percent reduction in fuel consumption by all of our cars. But there is a one-to-one relationship in fuel savings when we reduce the amount we drive.
There’s an ironic twist in these statistics. Some economists look at the trends and see a boomerang effect. They say when fuel economy improves, and we use cars that get better gas mileage, we tend to drive more. So, you have to turn down the dial on a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy, down to only about 18 percent, in order to account for more driving.
The 121-m.p.g. Scion iQ EV has the highest E.P.A. fuel economy rating of any car in the U.S. But even if every new car sold was an iQ EV, it wouldn’t save as much fuel as the average American driving less.
But there’s a reason economics is called the dismal science. Data from FHA, and the Environmental Protection Agency, shows that m.p.g. is getting higher, AND we are driving less. That’s a win-win that you can support, by finding alternatives to driving (public transport, walking, telecommuting) as much as you can—but when you have to move around by motor, use the most efficient car you can, such as a hybrid or electric car.
Article by Brad Berman, appearing courtesy eBay Green Driving.