Ouch: Our Cars Earn Just 4 MPG More Than They Did 92 Years Ago

August 18, 2015

Fuel economy is a hot topic among auto shoppers  Even with today's lower pump prices, efficiency remains one of the top criteria for folks in search of new rides.

After more than a century of making cars, you'd think that the auto industry might've made serious headway on the fuel economy front, but today's new cars earn an average of just 25.4 mpg. That's a fairly ho-hum figure, especially when you consider the 50+ mpgs that vehicles like the Toyota Prius are capable of earning.

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The stats get worse if you look at all cars on the road, not just new ones. According to a study from Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, fuel economy has improved about four meager miles per gallon since such data first became available in 1923.

Admittedly, the duo's methodology is a little complicated because of the changing way that the U.S. has defined auto segments and tracked fuel consumption. From 1923 to 1935, fuel data was only available for all vehicles. From 1936 to 1965, the feds provided breakdowns for cars (including motorcycles) and trucks. Since 1966, motorcycles have been given their own category, and trucks have been divvied up into light trucks, medium-duty truck, and so on. The category of light trucks now includes pickups, vans, and SUVs.

In other words, comparing apples to apples when it comes to fuel consumption isn't a straightforward matter.

Despite those complications, however, Sivak and Schoettle show that fuel economy remained pretty flat for the first 50 years covered by their study. In fact, it actually declined a bit, falling from 14 mpg in 1923 before bottoming out at 11.9 mpg.

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Any guesses what year that might've been? Anyone want to take a stab at when America's fuel economy hit its low point and finally began climbing? If you said "1973, the start of the oil crisis", you'd be right.

And that's perhaps the second-most depressing part of the UMTRI study. From 1973 to the early 1990s  fuel economy steadily crept upward, with the U.S. fleet earning an average of 16.9 mpg in 1991. But that uptick didn't come until consumers felt the squeeze -- until the supply of gasoline became limited and prices began to soar. Even in the early 70s, when America was in the midst of a massive wave of environmental awareness, it was pennies, not principles that led to fuel economy gains.

And the most depressing part of the study? After 1991, fuel economy began to level out again. Over the next 22 years, our cars gained less than one mile per gallon, ending 2013 at 17.6 mpg. That's a gain of fewer than four miles per gallon since 1923.

There is one bright spot, though: the fuel economy of new cars -- as opposed to the entire U.S. fleet of light vehicles -- has risen more than five mpgs in the past eight years, and it keeps ticking upward. So there's that.

For an abstract of Sivak and Schoettle's study, check this PDF.

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