More efficient cars are putting a Hummer-sized dent in gas consumption

Emily Badger (c) 2014, The Washington Post. WASHINGTON — Since 2007, new cars sold in America have grown steadily more fuel efficient, a quiet but considerable environmental success. As of September of this year, new light-duty vehicles purchased in the U.S. averaged about 25.3 miles per gallon, up from 20.1 mpgs in October of 2007.

For some perspective on what those gains mean nationwide, look at this chart from Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. They’ve been tracking the fuel economy of new vehicles sold (based on their EPA window sticker ratings) every month for several years, and this picture includes data collected on 93 million vehicles:

It illustrates that recent gains in fuel economy have saved the U.S. more than 15 billion gallons of fuel since late 2007. That’s the equivalent of all the gas used by vehicles in the U.S. in about 33 days. And it translates to saving about 297 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

If these gains still sounds modest, consider the longer arc of American fuel economy. Back in 1923, the average fuel economy of all cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles on U.S. roads was about 14 miles per gallon, which sounds surprisingly high when you consider that many vehicles getting only 14 mpgs still ride on the road today. After the 1920s, however, fuel economy actually declined for several decades — gas was cheap, Sivak says, and so we could afford to concentrate on the other things we value about our cars, like power and acceleration.

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By 1973, the national average was only about 11.9 mpgs. It steadily increased from there (as oil prices shot up), then plateaued in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now we appear to be making real progress again.