As technology becomes more advanced, the things we use on a daily basis typically become better, faster, and cheaper. In 1991, for instance, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine that one device could contain a phone, camera, flashlight, calculator, Internet browser, music player, and alarm clock. Today, nearly two-thirds of Americans own a Smartphone. In 1991, there were approximately 7.5 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S. By 2014, that number rose to over 327 million.
Like cell phones, you would expect that something as commonplace as the fuel economy of the cars we drive on a daily basis would have improved dramatically since 1991 as well, however, fuel economy has remained stagnant. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the average MPG of an American vehicle in 1923 was approximately 14. Instead of improving, that number actually declined to 11.9 by 1973.
After the first OPEC embargo, consumers and automakers made fuel economy more of a priority. The average MPG had improved to 16.9 by 1991. And, although the introduction of hybrids and climbing gas prices would presumably result in improved fuel economy, by 2013, the average MPG had only risen to 17.6; a paltry 0.7 MPG in 22 years.
Despite improved technology and rising oil prices, why was the improvement so negligible? The rising popularity of SUVs and minivans are a key factor. According to Kelley Blue Book, the most popular SUV at the turn of the century was the 2000 GMC Yukon XL 2500, which only attained 12 MPG in town and 15 on the highway.
The need for SUVs and minivans will always remain and, in some instances, there is simply no replacement. If you’re hauling furniture or picking up the kids from carpool, the SUV or minivan is a necessity. But, with approximately 76% of Americans commuting alone, there are sensible alternatives to having seven empty seats five days a week as you commute into work.
What’s even more striking, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal standards for fuel economy are only going to increase. To meet the standard for 2025, a mere 10 years away, it is mandated that the average fuel economy increase to 54.5 MPG for cars and light-duty trucks, a 210% jump over where it stands currently.
For this to happen, two things need to occur: Americans need to change the way they think about transportation and the automobile industry needs to innovate when it comes to fuel economy.
Dramatic changes in results will require dramatic changes in the way we approach the challenge. Clearly, to meet the high expectations set by Federal fuel economy standards, the time for innovation is now.