Fuel Efficiency and Lessons from Europe

I read a nice opinion piece a few days ago in the Buffalo News (1). It was written by John Paul Rossi, a history professor at Penn State Erie. The essay addressed the need for increasing the fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. Professor Rossi writes:

One of the reasons the United States is so dependent on foreign oil today is that Americans have replaced reasonably fuel-efficient cars with vans, pickups and SUVs, which average 21 mpg.

This trend can be reversed by providing motor vehicle manufacturers and American consumers with incentives to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles and discourage purchase of gas guzzlers. A study by the Consumer Federation of America points out that “an increase of 5 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency of (the United States) domestic fleet would save about 23 billion gallons of gasoline each year” — cutting oil imports by an estimated 14 percent.

The problem is that there has not been much incentive for Americans to purchase vehicles with higher fuel efficiency. Some of you purchase fuel efficient vehicles because you think it is the responsible thing to do. I applaud you for that. But gas has been cheap for a long time, so the public has not willingly made a mass move to higher fuel efficiency. We tend to feel safer driving around in oversized vehicles. But now gasoline is starting to become more expensive, which will lead some to pay more heed to fuel economy as they purchase new vehicles. Yet so far, gasoline prices of nearly $3/gallon have not been sufficient to cause a signficant dip in our fuel consumption. It is therefore unlikely that $3/gallon gasoline will cause a substantial increase in the average fuel economy.

The essay continues:

Additionally, the federal government should impose a progressively increasing sales tax on cars, vans, pickups and SUVs that average less than 27.5 mpg, which is the current average mileage for the U.S. passenger car fleet.

I agree that the government needs to be more proactive here. They mandated that we use increasing amounts of ethanol in our fuel, but they haven’t really addressed the core problem. Bush, in his State of the Union address, complained that we are “addicted to oil”. What would be the fastest way to cure such an addiction? It is very unlikely that we can produce enough biofuels to allow us to continue driving around in gas guzzlers. The root of the problem must be addressed. The government must substantially increase fuel efficiency standards if they are serious about weaning us from foreign oil.

Lessons from Europe

An article last year in The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) explains how Europeans have learned to live with gasoline prices that are now $6-$7/gallon in some cases.

A gallon of gas in Amsterdam now costs $7.13, compared with just $2.61 in America. The contrast in prices and environmental policies – and the dramatically different behaviors they inspire – signals a widening transatlantic energy gap. And it raises the question: Does Europe offer America a glimpse of its future?

Indeed, while Europeans have learned to cope with expensive fuel (mostly due to taxes), there’s scant evidence yet that US drivers are adopting their conservation tactics.

The following graph from the article tells the tale:


That is a shameful graphic. Right now, the average fuel economy in the European Union is over 40 miles per gallon. Japan is even better at over 45. The U.S. lags far behind with an average in the mid 20’s. Yet American society as a whole is unlikely to adopt conservation tactics until prices become painful. Even then, they are more likely to scream in vain for politicians to punish Big Oil in the hope that this will force gasoline prices back down. But the CSM story indicates that the way we have designed our society is also a big part of the problem:

But efficiency alone does not explain the huge disparity between fuel-use figures on either side of the Atlantic: European per capita consumption of gas and diesel stood at 286 liters a year in 2001, compared to 1,624 in the US, according to IEA figures.

The nature of cities plays a role, too. “America has built its entire society around the car, which enabled suburbs,” points out Mr. Dings. “European cities have denser centers where cars are often not practical.”

I lived in Europe from 1999 to 2001, and I typically paid over $4/gallon for gasoline. I coped by getting a very fuel efficient car. I didn’t feel unsafe, because I was not surrounded by big SUVs on the autobahn. I rode my bike whenever possible. If you travel to Europe, you will notice a tremendous difference in the way they use energy. Large vehicles are practically nonexistent. The highways are full of small, very fuel efficient vehicles. Diesel cars, which have a greater efficiency than gasoline cars, make up a large proportion of the automobiles. The cities are compact, full of bicycle paths, and surrounded by farmland. Public transportation is ubiquitous. There is little suburban sprawl. People walk or bike in large numbers, not only conserving energy, but also resulting in a very healthy population. Standards of living are very high.

We Americans tend to learn that “The American Way” is the best way. In some cases, this may be true. But as far as energy utilization, we provide a terrible example. We should look to Europe as a guide in this instance. But we also need some strong leadership on this issue. As the article puts it:

“Societies adjust over decades to higher fuel prices,” says Jos Dings, head of Transport and Energy, a coalition of European environmental NGOs. “They find many mechanisms.”

The problem is that we do not have decades in which to solve this problem.


1. ” Fuel-efficient cars would go a long way toward solving the oil crisis.” Buffalo News, April 16, 2006.

2. “Gas prices too high? Try Europe.” Christian Science Monitor, August 26, 2005.

11 thoughts on “Fuel Efficiency and Lessons from Europe”

  1. My opinion:

    There should be a progressively increasing gasoline tax, as well as a progressively increasing national toll tax (a tax on wearing out / using up space on our roads).

    For the gas tax: Phase in the gas tax and phase out current taxes that pay for part of the military budget (whatever congress decides our military uses to protect oil supplies).

    Toll taxes will be paid at the pump based on miles driven. As they phase in the toll tax, the revenue will go to replace taxes currently used to pay for road maintenance (which includes a lot of the present gas tax)and also to pay for public campaign for increased car pooling. These two initiatives combined with congress increasing fuel economy standards will send a consistent message to the American public, which will allow us to change our behavior gradually, and in the way that best suits our needs.

  2. I am with you 100% on a higher gasoline tax. If we phased in something like Europe’s gasoline tax over a few years, it would solve a lot of problems. People would start to change their driving habits. They would start purchasing more fuel efficient vehicles. Our usage of fossil fuels would start to decrease. We can preach conservation, but the only real thing that’s going to enforce that is price. The only thing we have to watch is that it doesn’t unfairly punish the poor. A higher gasoline tax needs to be offset with lower income taxes in order to sell it, but there may need to be some tax credits made available for the working poor who don’t have enough income to pay any income tax. A gasoline tax would come down pretty hard on them unless they got some kind of tax credits.

  3. If you travel to Europe, you will notice a tremendous difference in the way they use energy. Large vehicles are practically nonexistent. The highways are full of small, very fuel efficient vehicles. Diesel cars, which have a greater efficiency than gasoline cars, make up a large proportion of the automobiles. The cities are compact, full of bicycle paths, and surrounded by farmland. Public transportation is ubiquitous. There is little suburban sprawl. People walk or bike in large numbers, not only conserving energy, but also resulting in a very healthy population. Standards of living are very high.

    Absolutely correct Robert,

    I was fortunate to live in Germany for 11 years, and there is much we can learn from all of Europe in regards to how to use energy.

    The average German consumes about 40% energy as we do on a per capita basis, yet their standard of living is just as high, or higher than ours. Obviously they have a clue most of this country cannot imagine or appreciate. Unfortunately, the only way to get most people to see the light is through government action and taxation. (Or through very expensive energy.)

    I lived in three small German villages and the City of Frankfurt during my 11 years. In the villages it was rare to see a German jump in a car to go shopping. Most of the time they would hop on their bikes, or walk to the corner bakery, grocery store, church, library, or whatever. All of their villages are walker friendly, and cars aren’t a necessity to do daily business.

    When I lived in Frankfurt, we used the U-Bahn to do our business. In the many times I went to the Frankfurt Stadtmitte, I never drove my car.

    Germans do have and love cars, but for the most part they only use them when necessary. (And as you aid, their use of diesels is much higher than ours. When I lived there, I drove a Mercedes diesel that got about 50 mpg while cruising on the Autobahn at 85-90 mph. I now drive a VW Jetta with a turbo-diesel engine. It also gets about 50 mpg.)

    Germans are also a lot smarter about using energy in their homes and businesses. Their homes are insulated much better than ours. They don’t use tank-type hot water heaters, but instead on-demand units that use far less energy.

    They do many small things right: In their hotels the hallway lights turn themselves off after about 90 seconds. When you walk out of a hotel room, you have to turn the hallway lights on just like at your house. A timer then turns the lights off. The next person who wants to use the hallway has to turn the lights on again. We would think that a huge inconvenience — Europeans accept it.

    In the villages I lived in, the street lights we all low-wattage florescent lights — and many of them turned themselves off after midnight. The lights at corners usually stayed on all night, but not the mid-street lights.

    Walk through a German village at night, and most Americans would be surprised at how dark it is. (You can look up and actually see the stars.)

    Go to a German shopping center, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the absence of gaudy neon signs and super-bright parking lot lights.

    I could go on, but having lived in Germany I know you understand. (I was going to talk about taxation, but have already rambled on too long.)

    Unfortunately, most Americans don’t understand. Those politicians, who grandstand about $3.00 gasoline, would do better to try and get us to live a more European lifestyle – at least with respect to energy consumption. It would not mean a lowering of our standard of living, just a change in habit patterns. If we have to force that change through taxation, so be it.


    Gary Dikkers

  4. Americans cannot reduce their fuel requirements due to the way our cities, towns, and transportation system are built!

    To get to/from work, cars are a necessity as public transportation system are in shambles.

    The first (unlikely) step would be to demolish the outdated city layout/transportation system and rebuild everything in the compact methods of Europe so that cars will no longer be necessary for daily life!

    Only then would we be able to drastically cut down on our fuel needs.

  5. taxing the purchase of autos that get lower mileage probably isn’t the best idea… It will detract from buyers which could hurt economy… We want people to buy whatever they want… It is thier use that we are concerned with… Especially when cars are considered a hobby for many. it would make more sence to have a progressive tax on the annual mileage you put on low efficiency vehicles. that way, those enthusiests who want can still own thier sports cars, but reserve thier use for sunny weekends and not the daily commute….

  6. vans, pickups and SUVs, which average 21 mpg

    My sub-4000 pound car with good aerodynamics gets about 14 mpg… and these 6000+ pound things with the aerodynamics of a brick get 21? In real life?

    Jared wrote: Americans cannot reduce their fuel requirements due to the way our cities, towns, and transportation system are built!

    Of course they can, Jared. That’s the whole point of the graph. We could easily cut our fuel use in half with existing technology. Simple technology- the stuff the entire rest of the world is already using. If we wanted to be smart, and actually innovate, we could be driving PHEVs in the very near future. We don’t even have to give up large cars. They will need to get lighter, but they do not necessarilly have to be tiny. We don’t need to give up safety, either. Car safety is more about controlled deceleration than inertia.

  7. The only answer is trains. As I recently remarked to the brother of someone famous, if Amtrak wasn’t run by Republicans trying to destroy it, they’d be running a major advertising campaign about now.

    Graphs I’ve Made:

    Oil Usage By Sector (1949-2003)

    Energy Usage By Sector (1949-2003) (the red line is independent of others, and represents energy turned into electricity first)

    Household Usage of Oil Breakdown (1949-2003) (a friend was very surprised at the first graph, and asked for more information about Household Oil Usage.

  8. The situation in Australia, severely affected by runaway climate change, is really deplorable. Over the period since 1967, rainfall has declined by over 25 percent in the ecological hotspot of Southwestern Australia. At the same time, rainfall has increased by as much as 50 percent in the Northern Territory and northern and central Western Australia.

    However, owing to the appalling policies of its government, Australia’s climate change record in even worse than that of the US.

    Back in 1992, Australia ought to have planned to increase the share of public transport from about 5 percent to, by today, 100 percent in urban areas and over 50 percent in rural areas. Instead, Australia has, with its horrific Green Services Tax, been dismantling taxes on cars and making public transport not only hopelessly incovenient (most buses run hourly and not at all on weekends) and doing nothing to preserve its fragile environment and phase out ecologically unsustainable farming and fisheries.

    The whole question, though, does not amount to simply adopting European-style policies. The problem is that European and Asian nations which are really extraordinarily fertile perceive themselves as resource-poor in an industrial society because glaciation and mountain-building have destroyed their industrial resource base (metal ores) completely. As Phillip Longman has shown, it is not likely Australia will catch up in efficiency and ecological standards with Europe and Asia because – aided by a 40 percent fall since 1988 in real car prices – fertility rates in car-dependent Melbourne exurbs are far greater than in less car-dependent areas. In these areas, the proportion of people with ties to organised religion is probably six to seven times that in European cities. The power of Australia’s mining sector would absolutely preclude a shift of funding from cars to mass transit anyway.

    Also, US and Australian exurbs are the one affordable option in developed nations for young families. It is unlikely that there will be a persistent revival of birth rates in European or East Asian cities. Even without the lavish farm subsidies sometimes blamed for unaffordable housing, family raising would not be affordable.

    Thus, there is no easy solution. With severe development restrictions and much-increased energy efficiency, the US would fall into the problems of indebted pension systems and lowest-low fertility faced by Europe, Asia and most of Canada today. As it is, it faces ecological problems that could be catastrophic.

  9. Gasoline Prices – How to Lower Them for Good!

    After reading endless stories about ozone depletion, high energy prices and global warming; all intended to scare the beJesus out of us, I thought it might be time to suggest a sane and EASY way to end the energy crisis once and for all. America has a vast untapped natural resource that, if used properly, can eliminate high gas prices and mitigate ozone depletion and global warming. What resource am I speaking of? Broadband internet!

    As a project manager I have worked from home for the past 3 years, spending zero dollars on gasoline to commute from my kitchen, where the coffee pot is, to my office on the second floor of my home in suburban Rochester, New York.

    “U.S. News” recently ran a scare story about how we’re running out of room on our highways in major cities such as LA, Atlanta and Boston and that these cities and others are spending enormous sums of money trying to build infrastructure to meet demand. What a waste! We’re just feeding the gas consumption frenzy instead of tackling the problem. Nobody has asked the question “What can we do to eliminate this traffic?” Instead, we do what we do best – build, build, build and why? Because we need to cut down the up to 4 hours a day commuting hell that many Americans endure every single work day. By the time some of these people even get to their offices I have already had 2 productive hours of work.

    The solution to higher gas prices is as simple as using the broadband internet infrastructure that is already there for most of us and expanding it for others. Side benefits include less ozone depletion, slowing or stopping global warming, having a healthier, happier and saner work force and parents being at home when their young children get home from school.

    I propose that the government give businesses tax breaks for every person they set up in a home office. Even if we commuted once or twice per week instead of 5 times, our energy problems would be over. We would also have an infinitely saner, happier and healthier work force than the harried commuting masses we have today.

    How about it America?

    Al Frank

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