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Trends in Energy Efficient Vehicles

Trends 2In an age where “Go Big or Go Home” seems to dominated every aspect of the American lifestyle, it may seem odd to discuss where we can “go small.” Still, if trends in energy efficient vehicles have taught us anything, one can do both. In the automotive world, going bigger was always in direct opposition to energy efficiency – more power or more weight usually translates to more fuel consumption.

For a long time, particularly because fuel was inexpensive and we had no idea what burning a gallon of fuel did to the atmosphere, energy efficient vehicles didn’t matter. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the average vehicle in 1966 – including motorcycles, by the way – couldn’t even top 15 mpg (miles per gallon).

Influencing the Change to Energy Efficient Vehicles

Trends 1Since the price of fuel hadn’t topped 40 ¢/gal in decades, refueling costs were hardly worth thinking about. One major influencer that spurred research into improving fuel economy was political, specifically the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. Within months, gasoline prices soared past 50 ¢/gal, to a high of $1.35/gal in 1981 ($3.51/gal in today’s money), while existing fuel supplies were rationed. Fuel-efficient cars made total sense, but almost no one was making them.

Another major influence spurring the development of energy efficient vehicles was environmental, that is, recognizing the great harm being done to the atmosphere by millions of light trucks and cars. The EPA and CARB (Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board) started mandating lower emissions and better fuel economy.

Recent Trends in Fuel Economy

At first, the only way to reduce fuel consumption was to go small, building smaller cars with smaller engines. In 1975, the average new car fuel economy was just over 13 mpg, and it would take until 1981 to bring that average up to 20 mpg. This came at great sacrifice, because smaller engines and smaller cars are slower and less-safe. For the driving public, they weren’t all that fun to drive, either. From the 1980s through the early 2000s, even including the introduction of the hybrid electric vehicle, the average fuel economy hovered around 20 mpg, not because the technology wasn’t there, but because the driving public just wasn’t interested in them.

Around the mid-2000s, new technologies started to get things moving, and automakers found that they could increase power and fuel economy, something that had been impossible just a few short years before. Hybrid technology, forced-induction, direct fuel injection, vehicle materials, driverless cars, and tire technology are just a few areas that have seen major improvements. The results have been encouraging, bringing the average fuel economy from just 20 mpg in 2007 to a high of over 25 mpg in 2014.

Interestingly, while the United States population has increased by some 40% since 1981, energy consumption in the transportation sector has only increased by 38% (all transportation: planes, trains, automobiles, etc.). This means that, even though there are millions more cars on the road today, they’re using less fuel than ever before. While average fuel economy seems to have stagnated in the last couple of years, the application of some new technology will lead to further increases.

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