My wife and I moved from the San Francisco area to Colorado about 10 years ago. Now when I go back to visit our adult children and grandchildren the first thing I notice is the number of single occupant cars clogging the freeways. Of course the difference in population densities is huge. There are only about 5.5 million humans in Colorado. Where I used to live I could probably see that many by standing on the roof of our house.
We’ve grown comfortable with needing so much steel and energy to hurl us from home to cubicle at seventy miles per hour. We’re a nation in love with cars and the independence of travel. We’re also a nation that is concerned with dependence on oil and carbon emissions. Yet 50 percent of U.S. petroleum goes for passenger vehicle travel, while less than one percent goes for electric generation, and our transportation sector produces over 30 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.
So why do we hear so much about renewable energy being the answer to oil dependence? Probably because of ignorance and also some denial, because we can’t seem to change our driving habits and we’ve given up trying.
Have you seen the new MIT report: “The case of the missing gas mileage” ? In it MIT economist Christopher Knittel concludes that, because automobiles are bigger and more powerful than they were three decades ago, major innovations in fuel efficiency have only produced minor gains in gas mileage. From 1980 to 2006 automobile manufacturers increased fuel efficiency by 60%, meaning that, if you were driving the same weight and horsepower car that you had in 1980 but with a modern engine, you could expect 60 percent more miles per gallon. Since the average mileage in in 1980 was 23 miles per gallon, we would now expect 37 miles per gallon. But the problem is that we’re driving bigger and more powerful cars – heavier by 26 percent and propelled by 107 percent more horsepower. So the average mileage has increased by only 15 miles per gallon.
I’m not surprised too much by the numbers. Seems like there are a lot more SUVs on the road. Suburban conestogas with all-wheel drive that are shown flying across arctic tundra on TV commercials, but usually have no tougher duty than weekday commutes and hauling groceries and ferrying kids to soccer practice.
We have a 2004 Toyota Tacoma with 4 wheel drive. Pretty handy in the winter here where the local streets don’t get snow-plowed often enough. Plus, we use it for rock hounding and exploring in the Rocky Mountain back country. But I wouldn’t use it for commuting because it only gets about 20 miles per gallon on the highway.
Blame the auto manufacturers if you like. But Knittel says that they are simply responding to consumer demand. And the cost of gasoline is not high enough to force drivers to smaller vehicles, even during the recession. Knittel argues for increasing the gasoline tax. That would work if high enough. But I can’t see it being passed through the legislators anytime soon, can you?
How about electric cars? Most everyone agrees that they’re a great idea. The problem is a very small percentage of drivers are buying them. See Electric Vehicles Headed for a Big Crash
Ultimately we’ll see big moves to electric and electric hybrid vehicles and reducing commute distances through city planning. I won’t see that in my lifetime. Maybe I can talk to my grandkids about it the next time I’m brave enough to tackle a Southern California freeway.