University of Michigan Reports That Cars are the Most Inefficient Form of Transportation

by , 01/15/14

university of michigan, air travel, car travel, fuel efficiency, BTU, transport fuel efficiency

You’d be mistaken for thinking that due to their size and power, commercial jets would be inefficient when it comes to fuel consumption. However, according to a new report from the University of Michigan, planes are among the most efficient forms of transportation. In fact, according to the report, the fuel economy of standard road vehicles must improve 57% in order to match the current energy efficiency of commercial airline flights.

university of michigan, air travel, car travel, fuel efficiency, BTU, transport fuel efficiency

Michael Sivak, a research professor at the U-M Transportation Research Institute, wrote the report after examining trends in the amount of energy needed to transport a person a given distance in a light-duty vehicle, such as car, van or SUV. He compared his findings to that of a scheduled airline flight, measuring the BTU per person mile from 1970 to 2010.

Sivak found that the entire fleet of light-duty vehicles would have to improve from the current 21.5 mpg to at least 33.8 mpg to match the efficiency of planes. Either that, or the vehicle load would have to increase from the current 1.38 persons to at least 2.3 persons.

“It would not be easy to achieve either of these two changes,” Sivak said. “Although fuel economy of new vehicles is continuously improving, and these changes are likely to accelerate given the new corporate average fuel economy standards, changes in fuel economy take a long time to substantially influence the fuel economy of the entire fleet—it takes a long time to turn over the fleet.”

The report also stated that the 14.5 million light vehicles sold in the US over 2012 accounted for only 6% of the entire fleet of light vehicles on the road.

“A historical perspective illustrates the daunting task,” Sivak added. “An improvement of at least 57 percent in vehicle fuel economy of the entire fleet of light-duty vehicles would be required, but from 1970 to 2010, vehicle fuel economy improved by only 65 percent.”

Interestingly, while the energy intensities of both driving and flying have steadily decreased over the last 40 years, the improvement and fuel efficiency for air travel has been substantially greater than driving—a staggering 74% versus 17%.

“It is important to recognize that the energy intensity of flying will continue to improve,” Sivak said. “Because the future energy intensity of flying will be better than it currently is, the calculations underestimate the improvements that need to be achieved in order for driving to be less energy-intensive than flying.”

And how do trains stack up? Well, in 2010 the BTU per person mile was 4,218 for driving versus 2,691 for flying. For trains it was 1,668, buses had 3,347 and motorcycles had 2,675.

+ University of Michigan Research Institute

Via Clean Technica

Images: Pieter v Marion and ryanhsuh31

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  1. Jeremy Hymes-Balsley January 20, 2014 at 9:41 am

    You could either think of alternative ways to do things, like the author, my wife, and I have done, or you could be contrary, like Michael Gunter, and take a car because, hey, it pisses off the greenies, and we’re all about pissing off the greenies.

    Cars have their place. So do trucks. So do SUVs. And so do motorcycles and bicycles and buses and trains and your own two feet. Knowing which one to use in any given situation is the key to sustainable living, both for the planet and for your pocket book. And we know the green in your pocket is just as important as a green environment. :)

  2. lemonmint January 19, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    I can acknowledge that aircraft are more efficient than cars, but this study neglects the purpose and distances traveled – in the current form it is only valid if you intend to drive the distance you would fly as well.

    As the person below commented – you would not take the airbus to go and buy milk and bread

  3. Triftomou Stimapa January 19, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    I go to the supermarket on foot, since I live in a crowded city and everything is very close. Cars make transportation slower and more dangerous in the city. If I lived in an area that has a lot of empty land and long distances, I would prefer it if my grocery was delivered at home in a scheduled way that would be able to serve all the other families around me with the same track loading.

  4. Triftomou Stimapa January 19, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Great report! Make an other report to calculate the human life casualties as well. With a very clear mind try to understand how, by whom and why we learnt to take car granted as the main mean of transportation in the world. After that visualise a city with out traffic, air pollution, noise, isolation, anxiety and sudden death. Sorry I forgot, you will probably think that I’m a communist by now…

  5. Ken Wallace January 19, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    I don’t see the efficiency of flying getting much better. They have milked the engines & air-frame about as much as possible. All that is left is cramming more people on a plane and we’re miserable enough now, thank you.

  6. MICHAEL GUNTER January 17, 2014 at 11:01 am

    It is more fuel efficient to take the car down to the supermarket, than to charter an aeroplane for the same trip, and much safer than balancing the shopping load on the back of a motorcycle, or to struggle with it onto a bus or a train. Fuel efficiency? I take the car every time.

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