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).
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