You people aren’t cooperating. By now we were supposed to be driving less. When reluctantly on the road we would mount our tiny fuel sippers, hybrids, plug-ins, EVs, three-cylinder subcompacts. Oil would stay at $100 per barrel forevermore and filthy gasoline would be locked in the arm-and-a-leg price range in perpetuity. Given a choice, we consumers would logically act in our own self-interest and trade in the old Explorer for a Prius or a Leaf or if not dazzled by gizmos, maybe one of those teeny Fiats. That would be convenient, because government orders carmakers to make them available.
Well, no. We aren’t driving less, we’re driving more. We are buying big, not small. Electric vehicles are nifty and cool but still about 1.4 percent of the U.S. auto market. Hybrid sales are dropping. Pickups and SUVs are nearly two-thirds of vehicle sales. Ford sells around 3,000 pickups every day. Nissan sells that many electric cars in a year.
It’s not surprising that the federal Department of Transportation just reported that Americans drove 1.58 trillion miles collectively in the first half of 2016. (That’s 250 roundtrips to Pluto, they say. They love space travel analogies). That’s on pace to break the 2015 record of 3.15 trillion miles (Pluto and back 337 times), which was ahead of the pre-recession record of 3 trillion set in 2007. Miles driven in 2015 were up 3.5 percent over the year previous, the largest increase in a decade, and up more than 35 percent since 1990. Projections call for more and more driving in years to come. Since 1990, greenhouse emissions from transportation are up 16 percent.
Officials blamed, if that is the right term, job growth, low gasoline prices and urban sprawl for the rise in miles driven. So our driving is in many ways a reflection of the economy, which should make us feel better.
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It is slightly encouraging that despite us driving big vehicles farther, we aren’t using more fuel. The Energy Information Administration reports our gasoline consumption is still less than 2007, and will average a mere 9.23 million barrels per day this year and next. Our pickups and SUVs get better mileage, and that’s good. And, old guys like me drive less. “The combination of an increasing share of the baby-boomer generation reaching retirement and continued increases in vehicle fuel economy is expected to limit growth in motor gasoline consumption for the forecast interval and beyond,” said the EIA. No trips to Pluto for us. Not enough rest areas.
Miles driven per capita is rising after some years of decline, however, says Scientific American, due to the habits of the middle aged. Fewer young people are driving at all. Less than 25 percent of 16-year-olds have a driver’s license, a figure that would have been shocking not long ago.
A rise in miles driven means a rise in accidents. There were 35,092 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2015, up 7.2 percent from the previous year. It is troublesome, but still, traffic deaths were 22 percent higher 10 years ago, and measured in fatalities per mile were five times higher 50 years ago.
Add this up, and we are not on pace to meet the fuel economy targets ordered by President Obama. Our fleets were given a target of 54.5 miles per gallon average (the CAFE standard) by 2025. The latest prediction is we will fall short. They didn’t expect all this (relatively) cheap gasoline, or that we would still drive our big rigs. If trends continue, expect a carbon tax down the road.