The popularity of alternative fuel vehicles has grown rapidly in recent years. Gas-electric hybrids and plug-in electric cars have become the go-to options for many American drivers. These fuel efficient cars have become more hip and cool than ever before, and between that, their environmental friendliness, and the dollars they save drivers at the gas pump, more and more people are lining up at dealerships to get a new Tesla Model S, Toyota Prius, or one of the dozens of other alternative fuel vehicles.
From 2012-2015, the US averaged 435,235 sales of hybrid electric vehicles per year. That’s up from 286,500 per year from 2008-2011, and 224,705 per year from 2004-2007. The sales of fully electric vehicles, while still relatively small, have seen an even more extreme growth curve.
Despite the rising popularity of alternative fuel vehicles, the consumption of fuel in the US isn’t going down. American drivers are buying and using gas at essentially the same rate from year to year, and in many recent years the fuel consumption has even increased. While that sounds counterintuitive, there are actually a number of reasons why an increase of fuel-efficient cars has not been enough to offset growing fuel use.
The population is rising
The simplest explanation for rising fuel consumption in the face of alternative fuel vehicles is the constantly rising population. Even though vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, there are more people buying them and, more importantly, driving them. In 2015, the total US population was 321.8 million. Compare that to 309.3 million in 2010, and 295.5 million in 2005, and it’s easy to see where the added fuel consumption is coming from.
As noted above, the annual sales for hybrid electric vehicles are under half a million. With the population rising by two to three million people each year, fuel consumption is only going to continue to increase, unless alternative fuel vehicles take another big step forward in popularity.
Drivers have longer commutes
In 2016, drivers were found to be more willing than ever to have a long commute. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that the job market is now extremely competitive, and many workers are willing to take a position that’s far away if it offers the greatest benefits, the most money, and the best career prospects. Furthermore, people are changing jobs and careers far more frequently than they used to, and they usually don’t want to move just because they’re taking a new job in a different part of the city.
The second reason that drivers are subject to longer commutes is the increasing disparity in rent prices throughout different segments of cities. In many cities (especially metropolises), the areas where most of the businesses and offices are placed are not affordable for most of the workers. This often forces people to live across town or in a suburb and commute a long distance to their workplace.
Fewer people carpool now than they did 10 or 20 years ago. This is largely because of the same reasons that cause long commutes. With people changing jobs often and living further away from work, it’s less likely that coworkers live near each other, or that neighbors work near each other leading to a decline in carpooling.
Gas prices are getting lower
Gas prices have been decreasing in the US for a few years, as the price of oil has plummeted worldwide, and this has resulted in higher fuel consumption. Gas is exactly like most products: the lower the price, the more people will buy.
While an accountant might advise people that lower gas prices are a prime opportunity to save money, the reality is that most drivers use it as an opportunity to either drive more or ignore fuel efficiency when shopping for a new car. The average gas price in the US in 2015 was the lowest it had ever been since 2009; correlating with that was hybrid vehicle sales, which were the lowest they’d been since 2011.
Alternative fuel vehicle owners are environmentally conscious, not cost conscious
Alternative fuel vehicles have two huge benefits: they’re better for the environment, and they save you money at the gas station. However, the majority of plug-in electric and gas-electric hybrid vehicles are purchased more for the former benefit than for the latter.
In general, people who buy alternative fuel vehicles tend to be those who care about reducing carbon emissions, not reducing bills. People who use a lot of gas and would like to find ways to save fuel money are less likely to buy hybrids or electric vehicles, and if they do, they’ll usually opt for one of the cheaper hybrid options, which still use a fair amount of fuel.
While the increase of alternative fuel vehicles has been a great thing, Americans are still using extremely large amounts of gas. That’s not to say that fuel-efficient vehicles aren’t having an impact; a much larger amount of fuel would be consumed were it not for these cars. Yet as it stands, alternative fuel vehicles have not yet come close to solving the pollution problem caused by gas-dependent vehicles.
As government initiatives to raise fuel efficiency are enacted, and fully electric plug-in cars become more popular and more affordable, hopefully, this situation will begin to change. If you want to do your part by purchasing a fuel efficient vehicle, be sure to research whether you should buy a hybrid car or an electric one.