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US makes gains in fuel efficiency despite reputation as gas-guzzler

Federal policy, including steep gas-tax hike, spurs improvement

THE United States is the home of rock-and-roll, apple pie, and sedans so big they need tugboats to park. Europe is full of string quartets and bitty econocars that refuel only in years of French presidential elections.

That's the US self-image, anyway: America is the land of energy consumption; Europe stands for restraint, with the possible exception of Mercedes convertibles.

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But this self-image is only partly true. The US has in fact significantly improved its overall auto-fuel economy relative to Europe and the rest of the world over the last 20-odd years.

Between the initial sharp jump in oil prices of 1973 and 1991, the US fleet of cars and small trucks increased its miles-per-gallon average a whopping 53 percent, from 13.3 to 20.1 m.p.g., according to statistics compiled by economists at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

During that same period Europe increased average m.p.g. only 7 percent, an LBL study found. Japan - spiritual home of economy, the nation that introduced the world to reliable cars the size of toasters - raised its fuel economy only 2 percent during that time.

Government policy had a lot to do with the US efficiency increase, says Lee Schipper, an energy economist at LBL's Energy and Environment Division. Though nations all over the globe increased gas taxes after the oil shock, the US hike was much larger in a relative sense. That's because prior to 1973 US gas taxes were very low. Washington also put significant pressure on Detroit via the imposition of CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which today remain a major incentive for automakers to make mileage Job 1, if not 2 or 3.

In the years immediately following the sudden flowering of gas lines, many Americans shifted to smaller cars. As they drifted back to larger interiors and larger displacement engines, automakers kept pace with engineering improvements, paring weight and increasing efficiency. ``All the parts slip and slide better now,'' says Mr. Schipper. ``There are computers and sensors to help mix efficient fuel ratios.''

Lest American drivers get complacent and begin shouting ``gas hog!'' at the few remaining Fiats on US roads, it must be said that the relative US improvement appears to have flattened out since 1991. And overall, European and Japanese drivers still have an average better gas mileage than US counterparts. In Europe, the average m.p.g. of the nation's auto fleet in 1991 was 25.0, as opposed to the US's 20.1. In Japan the comparable figure was 20.8.

There are also more cars, per capita, in the US than in Europe. US cars are driven farther every year than those in other countries. When all these differences are taken into account, in per capita terms ``Europe uses 40 percent as much auto fuel as the US does,'' says Schipper.

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Most Americans probably think that their nation's size is what accounts for the fact that drivers here on average travel farther. In Britain a driver can span the country in a day. In the US there are whole states one can barely cross in a day. But that's only partly true, as car trips in the US don't tend to be much longer than elsewhere. The average length of auto trip in the US is about 9.4 miles (15 kilometers). In Britain and the Netherlands, it's 8.1 miles (13 kilometers). In Sweden and Germany the comparable figure is about 6.9 miles (11 km).

The real difference in distance is accounted for by number of trips. Americans make about 18 trips a week in car, both as drivers and passengers, according to LBL figures. Europeans make around 11. Distance traveled for work-related reasons is roughly equal on both sides of the Atlantic; but US drivers go much farther for social, recreation, family, and civic reasons. All those trips to take kids to band practice, hit the drive-through biscotti bar, and see movies at the mall multiplex add up.

Europe's urban and suburban fabric makes for different kinds of travel, as even the most casual tourist can tell. Smaller shops closer to population centers mean that Europeans walk to many destinations American must drive to.

In fact, by some measures US citizens are far from the most peripatetic in the world. Consider the total number of trips people launch on per week, by car, foot, bike, bus, air, and rail.

Americans, on average, leave home for around 20.5 trips per week. That figure is slightly higher than comparable ones for both Germans, at 19.7, and the British, at 19.8.

But some nations take many more trips per week than are common in the US. The Dutch, for instance. Trips per capita per week in the Netherlands total almost 26. The difference? Largely bicycling for recreation, says Schipper. ``The Dutch are mad cyclists.''

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