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Planes, Trains, & Pretty Much Everything Else More Efficient Than Cars

Joshua Hill's picture
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  • Jan 18, 2014 4:00 pm GMT

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A new report released by a research professor at the University of Michigan Research Institute looking at data collected from 1970 to 2010 has shown that pretty much every form of transportation is more efficient than the good old-fashioned light-duty vehicle.

Michael Sivak examined recent trends to determine the energy needed to transport a single person a given distance in a light-duty vehicle — ie, cars, SUVs, pickups, and vans — or on a scheduled airline flight. His analysis was measured in BTU per person mile from 1970 to 2010, and found that the entire fleet of light-duty vehicles would need to improve their miles per gallon efficiency from 21.5 to 33.8, or increase their vehicle load from 1.38 persons to at least 2.3 persons to come anywhere near flight.

“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.”

Why will it take so long to turn over that fleet? Looking at light-duty vehicles sold in 2012, the 14.5 million vehicles only amounted to 6% of teh entire fleet of light vehicles on the road.

“A historical perspective illustrates the daunting task,” he said. “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.”

“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.”

All in all, it’s relatively unsurprising that cars are as inefficient as they are. Sivak’s analysis found that, in 2010, BTU per person mile was 4,218 for driving versus 2,691 for flying, and then Amtrak trains (1,668), motorcycles (2,675) and transit buses (3,347).

Planes, Trains, & Pretty Much Everything Else More Efficient Than Cars was originally published on: CleanTechnica. To read more from CleanTechnica, join over 30,000 other subscribers: RSS | Facebook | Twitter.

Photo Credit: Transportation Efficiency/shutterstock

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on Jan 18, 2014

Joshua, airliners are more efficient for non-stop long distance travel, but when you include the land-travel to and from the airports and start comparing fuel efficiencies of light duty vehicles (LDV’s) over longer distances, the apparent advantage begins to shrink significantly.  Average LDV fuel efficiencies are generally 20-30% greater at constant highway speeds (within speed limits of course) than average in-town stop-and-go traffic.  This factor is one of the reasons why LDV travel is much cheaper than air travel for trips up to a few hundred miles.  Yes, airline technology and efficiencies have improved significantly over the years (more efficient jet turbines, lighter weight body/frame materials, etc.), but the location and limited number of airports will always limit the practical and cost effectiveness of this mode of transportation.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 19, 2014

Wait, cars do have their upside.  For families travelling together (3-6 passengers per vehicle), there is not a more efficient method (my annecdotal observation is that for intercity travel, the passenger loading is much higher that for work day commutes).

Also, as we transition to sustainable energy systems, cars will shift from fossil fuel to batteries and ammonia or H2. Long range aircraft must always be powered by hydrocarbon fuel (there are no viable sustitutes with adequate performance), which for the foreseeable future will come from fossil fuels. 

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John Miller on Jan 19, 2014

Willem, such a transition would also require a huge cultural change within the U.S.  A large part of this change would involve transitioning the populous from current rural/suburban living standards to more urban, stay-at-home, and generally slowing down most transportation related activities.  This means shorter trips, more walking and bicycling, and perhaps replacing those Harley’s with motor scooters similar to Europe and Asia; with the ultimate objective of less travel by all forms on on-road, air or marine motorized transport.  Popular SUV’s and LD Trucks need to transitioned to subcompact LDV’s and those on-line purchases with wasteful overnight deliveries need to be stopped.  With the younger on-line/social media focused generation, some of this transition is likely already in progress.

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