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U.S. vehicle fuel efficiency has increased only 3 mpg in 80 years

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August 2, 2009

At 25 mpg, an original Model T would still give you better fuel economy that most vehicles...

At 25 mpg, an original Model T would still give you better fuel economy that most vehicles on US roads today

Gizmag is always on the lookout for alternative means of powering vehicles and saving precious fossil fuels. But, in truth, the vast majority of us still drive exclusively petrol-powered cars. And the even sadder truth, outlined in a new research from the University of Michigan, is that the average fuel efficiency of a US vehicle has improved only three miles per gallon since the days of the Ford Model T.

Michael Sivak and Omer Tsimhonia, of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, calculated the distance driven and fuel consumed for the entire US fleet of vehicles – incorporating cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses – between 1923 and 2006. Using those numbers, they were then able to analyze fuel efficiency on US roads at any time, and make telling comparisons between eras.

According to Ford, the Model T – which began mass-production in 1913 – averaged a fairly healthy 25 miles to the gallon. Nonetheless, by 1923, the year the study begins, the average fuel efficiency of the entire US fleet was 14 mpg. That figure remained about the same for more than a decade.

From 1935, however, fuel efficiency fell into steady decline, dropping to an alarming 11.9 mpg in 1973. When you think about the kind of vehicles released through that time – and the number of extras that steadily became standard – it’s almost not surprising. All those fins and chrome and power-assisted systems came with heavy penalties in efficiency. The Environmental Defense Fund, for example, estimates that air-conditioning alone decreases the fuel efficiency of a car by as much as 12%.

But, with the fuel crisis of the 70’s, fleet efficiency was compelled to improve, and in a hurry. From 1974 the economy of the US fleet improved five miles a gallon to 16.9 mpg in 1991. Curiously, since then – despite growing environmental awareness and publicly-voiced concern – improvement has been painfully slow, reaching just 17.2 mpg in 2006.

The underlying problem in recent years, of course, isn’t with new cars, some of which can achieve close to 40 mpg. It’s all those old vehicles out there, chewing up gas like there’s no tomorrow. As far as Sivak and Tsimhoni are concerned, it’s much more important to improve fuel efficiency at this end – from 15 to 16 mpg, say – than trying to get a Prius from 40 to 41 mpg.

By their estimates, for the US to reduce its total annual fuel consumption by 10%, fuel efficiency across the entire fleet of cars, motorbikes, truck and buses would have to rise nearly two percent. That may not sound like much, but it took 15 years for a 0.3% change. And when you’re talking about 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the average medium-sized sedan, making a change has never seemed more critical.

16 Comments

only 3 MPG in 80 years. We can do much better America

Michael E Foltz
3rd August, 2009 @ 06:11 am PDT

It's much worse than that. In 1911 the Baker Electric went 110 mile range and got 250mpg energy equivalent so in 100 yrs almost eff has went down by 1000%!! And Jay Leno's still runs on some of the original batteries.

Plus Model T's were made for ethanol as gasoline was not widely available and farmers could make ethanol.

jerryd
3rd August, 2009 @ 09:47 am PDT

Capitalism. Money. Sad.

iApplicate
3rd August, 2009 @ 02:50 pm PDT

Ok, I can agree that the US MPG could have been better, BUT The model T Only did a max of 40 MPH and at that speed you would be lucky to get 13 MPG.

Test any modern car at the Model T's average speed and I am sure it would beat the old T by more than 3 MPG.

What ever happened to balanced/unbiased reporting?

Dan Pereda Jr
4th August, 2009 @ 12:12 am PDT

Safety and pollution regulations are apparently left out of the whole equation here. I mean, seriously, we could build a kick-ass two-stroke low-weight car that would have plenty of vroom, and still get better mileage than a Prius.

It'd spew a lot of stuff into the air, and pretty much any accident would be fatal, though.

Eddie Sarphie
4th August, 2009 @ 01:37 am PDT

Ok, first of all the Model T could only go 30 MPH. Furthermore it was powered by a 22 horsepower engine. I don't work in the auto industry nor do I live in the region, but it would be nice to get both sides of this issue.

For too long in America, gasoline or oil has been one the cheapest natural resource. When America clamored for 50 years for more luxuries in their vehicles the focus wasn't on fuel economy, but rather the thousands of other conveniences pioneered right here in the good old U S of A. It is only now our initiative to create more fuel efficient vehicles because out of shear necessity. With eroding resources and increased competition for those very same resources we are being pushed to innovate in a technology that will keep us at the forefront of competition.

egr4wig
4th August, 2009 @ 07:37 am PDT

MPG does not sell cars. Power sells cars, styling sells cars, cupholders sell more cars than MPG.

Car makers could increase average MPG by 40% or better with current off-the-shelf* technologies, with little or no impact on performance. They will not spend a nickel to implement those technologies until they are convinced it will make them more money (or the Feds make them).

*Miller cycle

*variable valve timing

*variable displacement

*turbo-compounding

*NuVinci-style CV transmission

*lighter construction with composites and lighter metals

*smaller vehicles, designed for maximum utility

*In the US, redefine Federal regulations to permit importation, or domestic manufacture, of Kei-type vehicles

William H Lanteigne
4th August, 2009 @ 10:11 am PDT

Ref; iApplicat, This is good reporting. The idea is that they have taken a complete average; that is to say, they have not touched the data but just looked at the distance driven divided by the fuel consumed. Where they get the distance from, I'm not sure so that is debatable. But the final conclusion is that we have a much improved machine in terms of chemical output and comfort, but that the final milage remains pretty much the same. The real question to be asked, is how has this happened. Has the car companies planned for this? Maybe so. One of their concerns may be how often would a driver like to stop for gas (or pay per week.) From the engine efficiency, and tank size, they may then work out the rest of the power consumption in the car (AC, power controls, added body weight, aerodynamics etc...)

I'd like to see a TV show (and internet posted since I don't have a TV) like "Pimp my ride" where they pimp the car for efficiency. Wheel covers, streamlining, different AC, ect... It could be like Junk Yard wars where two teams are given beaters (those old 12 miles/gallon cars), a time to fix it up and 2 gallons of gas and to see who makes it the furtherest.

Like they said in the post, it is not the new cars, but the old clunkers that are the problem. I live in Baja Mexico, and we get all the US rejects. Old heaps of metal smoking and spewing everywhere. One of those wrecks has the negative effects of 100 new cars!

Rodger Evans
4th August, 2009 @ 10:52 am PDT

G'day, You are not comparing like with like, e.g. both vehicles traveling at a constant speed. In this situation, the modern vehicle's superior aerodynamics would result in a better economy figure.

A modern engine IS more efficient than the Ts four pot. Compare the brake mean effective pressure (bmep)that each engine produces, calculate the brake mean effective torque and power of each engine and compare at similar revs.

Modern vehicles are necessarily heavier. You want to be comfortable? You need a body. You want good seats, a heater, A/C? Extra mass. Safety standards imposed on designers also adds weight. You want brakes on all wheels? You want cleaner exhausts, this compromises efficiency. Extra mass. Weight or mass is the biggest killer of economy due to the desire to accelerate to a desired speed. f=ma!!

Please consider these points (just a few) before you condemn the modern car. Also, check out the official economy cycle used to arrive at the economy figure and compare it with how the T was used to arrive at its figure.

Also look at the way you use the modern car, I bet you couldn't cruise at 60mph plus in a T. If you want better economy, buy a European, Japanese or Aussie car. Remember, your domestic manufactures built the vehicle that YOU wanted to buy.

As far as Green house "gases" are concerned, CO2 comprises a mere 3.7%. By far, the greatest "greenhouse gas" is water vapour which is a product of fuel cells.

So please stop trying to stir up panic, the modern car IS more efficient and the global warming cannot be influenced by humans. Anthropological Global Warming is a myth.

The Earth warms and the Earth cools, we cannot change this fact. Actually, over the last 10 years, the average temperature has FALLEN by 0.75 degrees Fahrenheit.

Regards,

Royce

The government lies to us, we go to war, we lie to the government, we go to gaol.

rrvau
5th August, 2009 @ 10:18 pm PDT

It is common sense that when O2 and N2 is consumed burning oil, coal, and natural gas releasing CO2 and NO2 into the atmosphere, that CO2 and NO2 being larger will hold in more planetary heat than just O2. Given the number of places reporting drought, melting snow cover mountain tops, and/or historic massive flooding from heavy rains, that does sound like the predicted side effects of man made global warming. Given the increase in CO2 in the air we breath, that alone is reason enough for concern. Given the drop in known oil reserves, that alone is reason enough for concern.

If many American had not super sized their vehicles to avoid the effects of the first set of CAFE regulations involving cars, car fleet mileage in the US would have gone up 30%.

Ellen Betty Wyatt
9th August, 2009 @ 09:42 am PDT

I will repeat something I read, but can't say who it was by, sorry.

He was asked, in a socio-political context (progressive/conservative) Do you believe in progress?

he replied "Its a good idea."

I guess that's how I feel when I say I'm still looking for intelligent life on THIS planet.

Progress, it would be good to see it in actuality some day.

Ask yourself "what's an economy for?". Then look at how many law writers and how many reform resisting kstreet lobbyists we have supported in those 80 years. Ah some progree ...

Or a simple question: why do we worry about pollutants in partspermillion, when we really should be worried about partspermile? Pollution went down as efficiency went down. Some progress that gave us!

waltinseattle
10th August, 2009 @ 12:32 pm PDT

Modern vehicles are not necessarily more aerodynamic than 30's vintage cars. See ecomodder.com and aerocivic.com. Modern cars are 'styled' by salesmen rather than aerodynamically designed by scientists: with draggy open wheel wells, no belly pans, and no boat tails. If we all drove aerodynamic cars with the engine efficiencies we have now, we would export oil again.

TogetherinParis
15th August, 2009 @ 01:30 am PDT

Great use of out-of-context quote in this lame article!

"air-conditioning alone decreases the fuel efficiency of a car by as much as 12%"

Uh, no. The article linked actually states, "... as much as 12 percent in stop-and-go traffic, so consider cracking the windows. But at high speed, driving with the windows open [will] decrease the overall efficiency of the vehicle."

If one must use the A/C, it is more efficient at highway speeds to have it on, than to have the windows open, which dramatically increases aerodynamic drag.

Deathward Egg
6th October, 2009 @ 01:53 am PDT

Really sad that US vehicles has only rise to 3mpg by 80 years. What are they doing for 80 years, only making money?

Wholesalers
30th August, 2010 @ 11:08 pm PDT

they should make cars more economical, cost effective as well as smoother and faster.

Wholesalers
14th September, 2010 @ 03:00 am PDT

nowadays the cars are very expensive, and the auto insurance is also expensive. i try to find one for my pocket but i didn't find. why not the government reduce the prices?!

mmaaria
2nd October, 2010 @ 02:19 am PDT
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