This week, President Obama has yet again emphasized the need the break our dependence of fossil fuels. No matter what you think of the question of global warming, no one doubts the link between vehicle emissions and air quality. So if you want to be able to see across the road without your eyes watering, you want the design of vehicles to change. Less fuel is good for the air. Cleaner air is good for our lungs. We and our children benefit. So here comes the news we should all want to hear. As a nation, we now use less gas than we used to. Why is this such good news? Because this summer has seen us drive more miles. The holiday period has always tended to bring more people out on to the roads but, this year, we have managed to drive more miles than the last six years. In fact, you have to go back to before the financial collapse in 2008, to find a mileage this high.
So why have we driven more miles his summer? The answers is more complicated than you might think. In the good old days, economists claimed the number of miles driven tracked the cost of gas in particular and the general state of the economy. So when the feel-good factor was high, we all drove more. When gas got too expensive, we drove less. But this year has not seen the economy suddenly burst into life. Although the number of people looking for work has dropped, pay rates are stagnant at the lower levels. Consumer confidence is not suddenly high. Yet more vehicles have been sold this year. Well that’s because the manufacturers have been offering zero- or low-interest loans. There has been oversupply and the dealers needed to clear their inventory. The manufacturers stepped in to maintain the cash flowing through the market. But this boom will only be short term. More people are now walking to work, using public transport, or working from home. Add to this the aging population. Once retired, people spend less time behind the wheel.
So back to the news. For all the number of vehicles on the road has spiked and this summer has seen more miles driven, gas consumption has either stayed flat or fallen. Since we Americans use about 10% of the word’s oil production, this is a big deal. This is due to the improvement in the miles per gallon achieved by all vehicles. This will only get better as more hybrids come on to the road. For the record, the national average across all makes and models is now 26 mpg — and that with a large number of guzzlers on the road. This reflects a major social change and as we become more urbanized and public transport grows more efficient, we can expect driving to become less popular. This will make the roads safer, and the air quality better for all. We’re all going to be winners.