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Driver Habits Cancel Fuel Efficiency Improvements, UMTRI Study

Cars More Efficient, Drivers Not So Much
Cars More Efficient, Drivers Not So Much

While we were happy to note that fuel efficiency reached an all-time high last year, a recent study shows that driver habits cancel fuel efficiency improvements.

The overall fuel economy of the light vehicle fleet in the US may be at an all-time high of 23.8mpg, but we’re also burning more fuel.

One could make a couple of assumptions about the effects of improving fuel economy, such as “increased fuel economy equals a corresponding decrease in fuel consumption.” For the most part, this works, but only on an individual basis. Once you start getting into statistics, some alarming trends come to light.

The University of Michigan Transportation Institute [UMTRI] has been studying the statistics, and their findings show that overall, our driver habits cancel the benefits of fuel efficiency improvements.

“As a consequence of the changes in vehicle fuel economy, vehicle distance traveled, and vehicle load, the total amount of fuel used increased [from 1970 to 2010] by 53% [from 80 to 122 billion gallons],” noted Dr. Michael Sivak, Director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation, UMTRI.

As a consequence of changed driver habits, driving alone especially, fuel efficiency improvements effectively cancel out. For example, according to the 2011 American Community Survey by the US Census Bureau, just shy of 80% of commuters drive alone. It has to do with mentality really, because when fuel prices go up or fuel efficiency is poor, drivers are more willing to consider car-pooling or taking public transportation.

On the other hand, when fuel prices go down or a more fuel-efficient car is being driven, drivers tend to relax and forget their good fuel-saving habits. In other words, per person, it makes better fuel-efficient sense to transport four people in a 20mpg vehicle than it does to transport those same four people in four 50mpg vehicles.


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