Commentary: In spite of improved technology, fuel economy still lags

Here's a daunting thought in this age of rapid technological advancement. Fuel economy in the U.S. vehicle fleet has changed little since the days of the Ford Model T.

In a recent study, Michael Sivak and Omer Tsimhoni at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute calculated the distance driven and fuel consumed for the U.S. fleet of vehicles – including cars, light trucks, buses and heavy trucks – between 1923 and 2006.

The vehicle fleet on U.S. roads today gets a mere three miles more per gallon than vehicles in 1923.

That makes reaching the goal of a 35-mpg U.S. fleet average by the middle of the next decade seem overwhelming. It certainly will require a sea change in attitude, on the part of both consumers and manufacturers.

The average fuel efficiency of the U.S. fleet in 1923 was 14 mpg, where it stayed for more than a decade, according to the researchers. From 1935, however, fuel efficiency began a steady decline, dropping to a low of 11.9 mpg in 1973. The 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo then triggered a wave of innovation, and fuel efficiency of the U.S. fleet increased to 16.9 mpg by 1991.

But then it leveled off. From 1991 to 2006, fuel efficiency of the U.S. fleet increased by less than 2 percent – to 17.2 mpg.

So why aren't we seeing greater improvement, given that some of the newest cars today get close to 40 mpg?

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