Americans love their vehicles, and with good reason. The average American will spend about 38,000 hours in the confines of their car over a lifetime, so they tend to get familiar. A car can act as a kitchen table, a temporary bed to catch a few roadside Z’s, and even a karaoke bar. Increasingly, Americans are holding on to their beloved cars longer. Despite resurgence in new car sales, the American fleet is older than ever before, averaging 11.4 years. NBC News reports that over 53 million vehicles on the road have model years from the past century. Not only are vehicles getting older, but Americans are driving them more than ever before. The combination of the age of vehicles and the number of miles Americans are logging, nearly twice as many as they did in 1980, is having a serious impact on the environment.
While we may love our old cars, it is difficult to overlook the environmental ramifications of “clunkers,” or older, less-efficient vehicles. Driving is ingrained in the American way of life, and the numbers prove it. In the past 12 months, it is estimated that Americans have driven over 3 trillion miles. To put that number into perspective, a light-year is approximately 6 trillion miles. With such a staggering number of miles logged, it becomes increasingly important to look at fuel economy.
While increases in fuel economy over the years may not be staggering, the numbers add up. From 2004 to 2014, the EPA reported that fuel economy had improved 4.8 MPG, from 19.3 to 24.1. While it may not seem like a monumental spike, it has real-world implications.
If we assume Americans drive 3 trillion miles with the new car mileage from 2004, 155 billion gallons of gasoline would be consumed. When using the mileage estimate from 2014, the total is reduced to 124 billion gallons of gas. The difference of 4.8 MPG results in saving 31 billion gallons of gas in one year, which is the CO2 equivalent of energy use for 25 million homes for an entire year.
It’s natural to wonder if buying a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle is really more environmentally friendly than driving an old car, due to the natural resources and energy used in the manufacturing process. According to Green Car Reports, that notion is simply incorrect. Green Car Reports cites a study that reveals that “75 percent of a car’s lifetime carbon emissions stem from the fuel it burns, not its production. A further 19 percent of that is production and transportation of the fuel, leaving just six percent for the car’s manufacture.” So, over the lifetime of a vehicle, the fuel consumption is unvaryingly the most important aspect when considering carbon emissions.
As fuel economy in new vehicles has increased, maintenance costs have decreased. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “households owning vehicles less than 5 years old, not surprisingly, reported the lowest maintenance and repair costs per vehicle.” Households with vehicles between the ages of 6 and 15 paid $151 more a year per vehicle, than households with newer vehicles. The costs continue to increase when you factor in the lack of a warranty in a used car purchase. Over the years, as Americans continue to hold on to their cars longer, the maintenance costs begin to build.
A determining factor in decision to hold on to old vehicles is certainly the idea that the purchase process and cost of a new vehicle can seem daunting. The auto industry, however, has and will continue to provide affordable options that are much better for the environment. Over the lifetime of a vehicle, as outlined above, increased fuel economy results in less carbon emissions and more savings for the consumer.
So, will the future see the American auto fleet get younger, or will odometers and vehicle age continue to increase? Research firm, IHS, expects the number of vehicles that are at least 12 years old to grow by another 15% by 2020. When taking into account the environmental and economic impact of clunkers, it may be time to consider affordable, fuel-efficient alternatives to older vehicles.