By John Parnell
American cars are traditionally, big, brash and eye-wateringly inefficient. Research suggests that the pursuit of fuel efficiency, for one reason or another, is changing all this.
The cost of petrol in the States, or “gas” if you prefer, has always made running these vehicles affordable. This meant people paid little attention to the distance they drove, or the volume of fuel they burned.
It also meant Americans could typically afford more vehicles per head of population. World Bank data shows that in 2008, the US had 809 motor vehicles per 1000 people compared to just 526 in the UK and 554 in Germany.
In the US, where fuel costs are climbing steadily, the Kelley Blue Book motoring consultancy has picked out a trend for gas prices increasingly influencing car purchasing decisions. It’s most recent report on used car sales shows hybrids as the fastest growing type of vehicle. Compact cars with smaller engines are also performing well.
“The trend toward more fuel efficient vehicles in the US reflects a global phenomenon that has everyone looking to stretch a gallon of more expensive gas as far as possible,” says Robert Sinclair, media relations manager and spokesperson for the American Automobile Association (AAA) New York.
“While American gas prices are much lower than those around the world, they’re much higher than we’re accustomed to and has led to a major changes in the vehicles that are driven here,” says Sinclair.
“We’ve seen Americans make a major shift in vehicle preference, which is a good thing. But, that applies to someone who can afford a new car. The average age of a vehicle on the road in the US is now 10 years and for those driving such a vehicle, the response to higher gas prices is to stay home.”
New data from the US government has shown that people in the US are also driving fewer miles, racking up six consecutive months of decline between April and September 2011.
A similar pattern is emerging in the UK. With the last three quarters of 2011, all down compared to the same period in 2010. There is no way to tell however, if these changes are solely the result of economic factors, or whether the environment is also weighing on drivers’ minds.
Both countries hit their peak mileage in 2007, right before Lehan Brothers collapsed, leading you to one conclusion, recession. However, car usage has not risen at the same rate as the economic recovery, suggesting there are other factors at work.
In the States, the blame has now been laid at the door of high fuel prices. Pump prices have fluctuated by as much as 30% in a year with the national average price per gallon nudging $4, instead of the $3 mark of 2010.
Back in the UK, petrol prices are actually at a nine-month low, yet the pattern of reduced mileage among its drivers continues. There has been no sudden dash back behind the steering wheel as prices have dropped.
A recent survey conducted by the UK’s Automobile Association (AA) asked drivers what they would do if prices rose from the current level of around £1.32 to nearer £1.45. A massive 63% said they would cut back on their car use, implying that there were obvious ways to them for even further cuts in the use of their cars. Only 20% said they wouldn’t change their behaviour at all.
Another survey in the UK carried out by moneysupermarket.com, found that 67% of drivers had changed their motoring behaviour due to financial pressures.
The combination of rising pump prices from 2007-2010, added to the harsh economic situation in the same period made people change their behaviour. The fact that there are continuing drops in mileage, despite drops in UK fuel prices could suggest that most people have no intention of returning to their old ways.
It would probably be wishful thinking to suggest that concerns over climate change are forcing people out of their cars. But the facts suggest that those in the UK who changed their behaviour when the recession took grip, have continued to cut back on miles. The fact they are cutting emissions too, is probably a happy accident.
In the US, the recession may have cut miles initially, but it is high fuel prices keeping people off the roads today. Major improvements in the efficiency of the cars on the road during this period of high costs, means that one legacy of the recession will be cleaner personal transport in the States.
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