Today’s cars are more fuel-efficient than ever before, but that’s done little to curb the nation’s thirst for gasoline. The typical U.S. motorist burned as much gas last year as the average American consumed back in 1965, before federal fuel economy standards went into effect.
And that actually downplays the upward trend, according to analyst Michael Sivak, because U.S. travel was largely curtailed during the pandemic. While final figures aren’t available yet, per capita fuel consumption is expected to show another upward surge for 2021.
“Because of the pandemic, there was a substantial reduction in 2020 in vehicles miles traveled,” noted the former University of Michigan transportation guru who now runs Sivak Applied Research. In April 2020, as nationwide COVID lockdowns went into effect, the typical American motorist logged 40% fewer miles than a year earlier. For all of 2020, travel was down 13% compared to 2019.
Even so, consumption per capita was 356 gallons last year, slightly more than the average 346 gallons way back in 1965.
But there were about 330 million Americans last year, compared with a population of just 199.7 million in 1965. So, total fuel consumption grew substantially. And, with motorists again on the move this year, that helps explain why fuel prices have been hovering within striking distance of past records.
(The numbers dipped this last week to a U.S. average of $3.34 for a gallon of no lead, but that’s nearly triple what drivers were paying during the depths of last year’s COVID lockdowns — and comes in only about 20% below the all-time high of $4.28 a gallon in 2012.)
An all-time peak
American gas consumption hit an all-time peak — at least, on a per capita basis — in 1978 at 505 gallons.
Not so coincidentally, that was the same year that the first Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards for new cars and light trucks went into effect. But the standards have barely kept up with the increased mileage the typical motorist clocks, never mind the growth in the U.S. population.
In fact, overall gas consumption has hardly changed over the last quarter century.
During last year’s pandemic, Americans collectively consumed 117.25 billion gallons. That was the lowest figure since 1965, when the figure reached 117.06 billion gallons. And it was down from 136.08 billion gallons in 2019.
The record was set in 2014 — as the U.S. emerged from the Great Recession — at 136,468. The question is whether Americans will set another travel record as they bounce back from COVID? A study released by traffic tracking service Inrix this week showed a strong rebound, though still well short of what we saw before the pandemic. That could reflect several factors, including the fact that millions of Americans continue working from home.
What will happen in the years ahead could be influenced by a variety of factors. The Obama administration set a target of reaching a CAFE average of 54 miles per gallon by 2026. The Trump White House sharply rolled that back — and President Joe Biden’s regulators have struck a middle-ground goal. Those numbers are expected to stabilize, if not reduce, overall U.S. gasoline consumption.
But there’s another factor coming into play. After a slow start, demand for “electrified” vehicles has begun gaining real momentum. Sales of pure battery-electric vehicles more than doubled during the first half of this year and continues to gain speed.
Biden wants to see 40% to 50% of the vehicles sold in the U.S. rely on plug-in powertrain technology by 2030. And a new survey of industry leaders published by consulting firm KPMG says the White House may be too cautious. The consensus forecast for 2030 is 52%.
It will take years to get all the old gas guzzlers off the road. And it is unclear whether the trend towards clocking more miles each year will continue. So, it’s quite possible, if not likely, that per capita fuel consumption will continue to edge up, at least for a few more years, according to industry analysts.