Wednesday, May 18, 2011
If you take the total vehicle miles traveled estimated by the Federal Highway Administration that I graphed yesterday, divide by the amount of gasoline consumed according to the EIA (after removing the heavy truck mileage that's mainly diesel), you can get an estimate for the average fuel economy of the entire US auto fleet. This is different than the EPA's estimates for new cars because it represents the actual performance of the entire fleet on the road, new and old.
The graph above shows the numbers through February 2011. This series continues to disappoint. If I had my way, people would have paid more attention to the oil price shock in 2005-2008, and the fact that gas is $4/gallon again now even though the economy has barely recovered much at all, and would have started to change behavior and car models. However, there's no detectable bend in the curve at all.
Here's an old graph from this piece, showing this estimate annually from 1945 to 2005.
You can see that fuel economy drifted up slowly from the forties to the early seventies, barely accelerated at all in response to the first oil shock in 1973, then took off upwards after the second oil shock in 1979, improving several percent per year through the eighties. Then it went into gradual drift again in the early nineties.
It seems abundantly clear that the US is going to have to improve its fuel economy at a faster rate in the future to cope with rapid increases in emerging market demand in an oil constrained world. It would have been better if people had done this proactively. However, it appears that it's going to take a bigger, meaner, oil shock to get people moving in the right direction. The good thing is that the automakers have used the last few years to put in place a lot more high efficiency hybrids, plugin-hybrids, and electric cars. Now we just await the shock that's going to get everyone to buy them. Unfortunately, it's likely to also trigger a recession. If people won't learn the easy way, then they'll have to learn the hard way...