As my regular readers sense, I have declared a general war on nonsense, which is more graphically and accurately described as bullshit. (I didn't want to put that word in this post's title.) As George Carlin said, America's leading industry is the manufacture, distribution, packaging and marketing of bullshit. See my post The Kingdom Of The Blind. I've included the Carlin video again because it never gets old.
My general war on bullshit is not a war I can win. The "enemy" is everywhere. But I am not discouraged. I always win the small battles or skirmishes I choose to fight without suffering any significant damage.
Today's bullshit concerns the alleged greater fuel efficiency of the America car and light truck fleet, which is estimated to comprise about 250 million vehicles. This may seem to be relatively unimportant bullshit, and maybe that's true, but I see references to this fairy tale all the time. Each time I see one, it grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. The latest comes from Salon's Andrew Leonard, a Master of Bullshit carrying water for liberal Democrats everywhere. His recent column was called The great gas mystery: Higher prices, but continued growth.
A year later, the equation seems different. Americans are driving fewer miles and consuming much less gas. In 2011, Americans drove around 34 billion fewer miles than in 2010. In January, the four-week average for U.S. gasoline consumption fell to its lowest point since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In March, a MasterCard study reported that in the most recent 52-week period, “U.S. gasoline consumption dropped by 4.2 billion gallons, or 3 percent, vs. the previous one-year period.”
Improvement in fuel economy explains some of the shift. Over the last four years, the average fuel efficiency of the American auto fleet has risen almost four miles per gallon. But that doesn’t explain the change in miles driven.
Did you spot it? In the second paragraph, where he says over the last four years, the average fuel efficiency of the American auto fleet has risen almost four miles per gallon? There's no link! No source! In the first paragraph I quoted here, there's a source for everything he says. And then he makes a substantial claim about the fuel efficiency of the American car fleet, and all of a sudden there's nothing to sink your teeth into, no source for me to follow to substantiate that claim. For the true aficionado of bullshit, this glaring omission is a definite sign that something's up. It just doesn't pass the smell test.
I set out to substantiate or falsify Leonard's claim. Good data wasn't hard to find, and thus there's no doubt that what Leonard wrote is bullshit. Let's start with this time series from the Bureau of Transportation, Table 4-23. We are looking at the average U.S. light duty vehicle fuel efficiency, miles-per-gallon (mpg) per calendar year.
|Light duty vehicle, short wheel base||21.9||22.1||22.0||22.2||22.5||22.1||22.5||22.9||23.7||23.8||U||U|
|Light duty vehicle, long wheel base||17.4||17.6||17.5||16.2||16.2||17.7||17.8||17.1||17.3||17.4||U||U|
U means there's no data for that year. It is easy to see that the average fuel efficiency of the light duty vehicles with a short wheel base has risen 0.9 mpg since 2007. For a long wheel base (light trucks), the fuel efficiency has risen 0.3 mpg. That's nothing like the nearly 4 miles per gallon Leonard claimed.
Stuart Staniford of Early Warning looked at the longer-term trend last year in US Fleet Fuel Economy. He concluded that "this series continues to disappoint."
Says Staniford: "If you take the total vehicle miles traveled estimated by the Federal Highway Administration that I graphed yesterday, divide by the amount of gasoline consumed according to the EIA (after removing the heavy truck mileage that's mainly diesel), you can get an estimate for the average fuel economy of the entire US auto fleet. This is different than the EPA's estimates for new cars because it represents the actual performance of the entire fleet on the road, new and old."
You can see that this data is somewhat ... disappointing as Stuart said, given that oil (and thus gasoline) prices have been rising by fits and starts since 2003. And there's also this little "peak oil" problem we're looking at now and down the road.
But Leonard may have a leg to stand on in the future. Or perhaps he meant to say that the average fuel efficiency of the America's car fleet may increase 4 miles-per-gallon four years from now. The Bureau of Transportation also includes this handy chart showing the average mpg for new cars and light trucks.
I don't want to get into it too deeply, but auto sales appear to be brisk lately now that gasoline is set to move above $4 per gallon. Many of these newly purchased vehicles are more fuel efficient than the clunkers they are replacing.
But we should also bear in mind that the turnover rate in the American car fleet has been far lower in the last four years than it was prior to 2008 because of extremely poor new car sales.
And if the turnover rate has been so low, then it is completely, totally, absolutely, utterly and perfectly impossible for the average fuel efficiency of the U.S. car fleet to have risen by almost 4 miles-per-gallon in the last 4 years as Andrew Leonard claimed, and as the other available data substantiates. That much is clear.
So, did I win this latest skirmish in my general war on bullshit? I believe I did.
Time to whip out that victory cigar!
Bonus Video — George on advertising and bullshit. Priceless. And remember—mileage may vary!