You call that mileage?

While watching the Super Bowl the other day, I caught a couple of car commercials bragging about fuel economy in the 40 mpg range. One of them was the 2011 Hyundai Elantra that claims to get 40 miles per gallon.

40 mpg? That’s it? This supposed to be what is considered good?

That got me thinking. I decided to build a graph.

First, where we were. The initial point on the graph. I picked the Ford Model T. Says Wikipedia: “According to Ford Motor Company, the Model T had fuel economy on the order of 13 to 21 mpg.”

To keep the graph fair, I used the lower value of 13 mpg. This will make the improvement over time that much more dramatic.

I then made a linear line showing the increase in MPG over time between those two points. The 13 mpg of 1908 and the approx. 40 mpg of 2008.

In other words, in about 90 years we’ve gone from 13 mpg to about 40 mpg. Think about that. With all of the advances in technology in the 20th century, that’s all we could do? Wow!

Of course, using only two data points leaves out a lot of interesting activity in between. Here’s a graph that shows detail activity from the 70’s to present day:

Source: (PDF)

This graph shows a nice increase across the board between 1975 and 1987 or so. Of course, you have to notice that in 1975 the average fuel economy was only about 15 mpg. What the hell?

This car from 1908 could beat the average car of 1975 in fuel economy

So yeah, the pricing crisis in the early 1970’s prompted that increase in fuel economy. But then look what happens. We get complacent. We have a short memory. For over 20 years fuel economy has remained as flat as a pancake. And that’s just pathetic.

Oil is a finite resource. Put simply, if we could double fuel economy we’d use half as much. (In theory. Of course, if that happened demand would go up, so it wouldn’t be quite that simple.) Even so, fuel economy is probably the single most important lever we could move at this moment in time – if we had the collective will to care.

I’m amazed that car commercials can tout 40 mpg as some sort of achievement when really it is nothing more than a pathetic reminder of how little we’ve done.

4 responses

  1. When I was hyper-miling in my mazda 3 sportwagon, I got 41mpg–absolute top. I turned OFF my engine at stop lights (there are over 50 in my daily commute) and did the most annoying takeoffs and basically avoided braking…Oh, and I never drove above 55.

    How you use the car is MOST of it, per me. Most people aren’t willing to do this crazy crap (hypermiling).


    1. Hyper-miling, eh? I hadn’t heard of that before.

      I used to have a 90-mile one way commute to work. I spent about 3 to 4 hours a day in my car. That was one hellacious existence.

      For the commute I purchased a new Ford Contour because it was rated 30 mpg on the highway and was supposed to ride fairly quietly on the highway. After 18 months and 75,000 miles, though, the car died on me.

      One other important point I forgot to make regarding MPG numbers: We all know those are overinflated. Just like a 42-inch screen isn’t really 42 inches and a 500 GB hard drive isn’t really 500 GB.

      Funny how that always works out that way, eh?


  2. Not to mention that there were people like Bucky Fuller and countless others who designed and built cars that would get 60+ mpg using 1960’s technology. If car manufacturing weren’t the political game that it is, we would all be driving cars that ran on something besides oil right now. It’s a shame.


    1. I would think that we should have doubled average fuel economy twice within the last 90 years. That would mean an average car today would be getting about 52 miles per gallon by now.

      Half a century of not giving a shit is finally here to take it’s toll.


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