Published on January 14th, 2014 | by Joshua S Hill


Planes, Trains, & Pretty Much Everything Else More Efficient Than Cars

January 14th, 2014 by  

A new report released by a research professor at the University of Michigan Research Institute looking at data collected from 1970 to 2010 has shown that pretty much every form of transportation is more efficient than the good old-fashioned light-duty vehicle.

Michael Sivak examined recent trends to determine the energy needed to transport a single person a given distance in a light-duty vehicle — ie, cars, SUVs, pickups, and vans — or on a scheduled airline flight. His analysis was measured in BTU per person mile from 1970 to 2010, and found that the entire fleet of light-duty vehicles would need to improve their miles per gallon efficiency from 21.5 to 33.8, or increase their vehicle load from 1.38 persons to at least 2.3 persons to come anywhere near flight.

“It would not be easy to achieve either of these two changes,” Sivak said. “Although fuel economy of new vehicles is continuously improving, and these changes are likely to accelerate given the new corporate average fuel economy standards, changes in fuel economy take a long time to substantially influence the fuel economy of the entire fleet — it takes a long time to turn over the fleet.”

Why will it take so long to turn over that fleet? Looking at light-duty vehicles sold in 2012, the 14.5 million vehicles only amounted to 6% of teh entire fleet of light vehicles on the road.

“A historical perspective illustrates the daunting task,” he said. “An improvement of at least 57 percent in vehicle fuel economy of the entire fleet of light-duty vehicles would be required, but from 1970 to 2010, vehicle fuel economy improved by only 65 percent.”

“It is important to recognize that the energy intensity of flying will continue to improve,” Sivak said. “Because the future energy intensity of flying will be better than it currently is, the calculations underestimate the improvements that need to be achieved in order for driving to be less energy-intensive than flying.”

All in all, it’s relatively unsurprising that cars are as inefficient as they are. Sivak’s analysis found that, in 2010, BTU per person mile was 4,218 for driving versus 2,691 for flying, and then Amtrak trains (1,668), motorcycles (2,675) and transit buses (3,347).

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.


About the Author

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.


    Airplanes are not more efficient than those. Actually, Airplanes use more CO2 per passenger than cars, buses and ferries. By that sad CO2 Equivalent gram/passenger is at the highest level for airplanes which is very surprising. (Source: http://www.airboard.co/ )

    • Eklads

      It’s true but just why?

  • Guest

    Airplanes are not more efficient. Actually, Airplanes use more CO2 per passenger than cars, buses and ferries. By that sad CO2 Equivalent gram/passenger is at the highest level for airplanes which is very surprising. (Source: http://www.airboard.co/)

  • Hari

    Sometime last year on Clean Technica, I commented that electric vehicles should be developed solely for public transport and not individual use. I stick by it. Cars are inefficent modes of transport that create pollution, dirty engine oil and are ‘dangerous at any speed’! Let us stop wasting time and scarce resources in creating electric cars for individual use. Let us design highly efficient mass transport systemsfor the public or even moving roads.

  • Benjamin Nead

    I’ve seen several studies comparing air travel to train travel to cars. They all seem to come to different conclusions. And, yes, you don’t take a jetliner to the corner grocery store, nor do trains make very good transoceanic vehicles.

    One thing I saw not too long ago, however, addresses one of the more inefficient aspects of traveling by plane: the amount of fuel needed to simply taxi around the airport pre and post flight. Here is an electrified set of landing gear wheels that is touted to make significant fuel savings for large jet aircraft while it moves around on the ground . . .


  • BigWu

    EVs consume ~300 Wh per mile, or ~1034 BTUs per mile. Based on the numbers in the article, a single driver in an EV is 62% more efficient than flying and 38% more efficient than riding Amtrak.

    • eject

      Depends a bit on how you calculate it. The 300Wh per mile you used is BTU taken from the Battery. Not BTU used to charge the battery. And how much was actually necessary to create that power in the first place. There also would need to be some sort of a life cycle analysis.

      And this is where a plane or a train will be hard to beat. Because they are constantly going. You don’t buy a plane or train to have it sitting around like you are perfectly happy to have a car doing. Planes spend way more time in air then sitting around. This makes the initial energy investment broken down over the life cycle very small. Trains and planes are even given a makeover and might be in service for decades. Then they are so big that recycling really is efficient which also needs to go in the life cycle.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Subtract 10% for energy lost during battery charging. The rest doesn’t apply since BTU use for planes/trains doesn’t include the energy lost extracting/refining/transporting fuel.

        • eject

          There is a lot more lost during charging. Check with EV forum where people measure what comes from the plug and what is stored in the battery.
          A random blog post number I have at hand lists 13kWh/100km drawn from the battery which took 20kWh/100km to replace (still beats petrol by a huge margin). That is a lot more then 10%. But this is from a 230V single phase wallbox. That is not very efficient but probably the most realistic scenario for a home owner. Going 3 phase or DC charging can be more efficient but only if the higher power submitted does not require a heat-pump running in the car to get the heat out of the battery, still that can be mre efficient then charging a warmer battery since above a certain temperature (depending on type of battery) the inner resistance increases and thereby losses leading to further increases in temperature. Of course there are all sorts of considerations that have to go into fueling other modes of transport as well. Thats why I stated that it depends on how it is calculated

          It is a rather complex topic but I simply can not believe that a car no matter what technology propels it can beat a proper sized aeroplane, it is the mode of transport where apart from climbing the least amount of energy is needed to maintain speed. There is, as was already stated, a minimum distance that is needed to beat a car and this again depends on a lot of variables.

          • neroden

            No, it’s about 10% loss in charging. The Tesla has some pretty bad energy losses but they’re due to “vampire drain” (basically the electronics keep operating when the car isn’t moving).

  • Steeple

    You have to dissect flight into ranges for it to make any sense. Of course it’s more efficient to fly long distances, as the cruising time offsets the inefficiency of climb out. There is probably a range (400 miles?) over which flying becomes more energy efficient.

    • tibi stibi

      indeed: taking the plane to do the grocery will not be more efficient 😉

      • neroden

        They had dreams of personal aircraft running errands in the 1920s and 1950s; crazy stuff.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    Solar charged EV is very hard to beat.

Back to Top ↑