Fuel pump in a carWith 2013 setting a record for the highest average fuel savings for America’s vehicle fleet at 24.1 miles per gallon or MPG, it’s believed that 2014 will raise that to 24.2 MPG. This number continues a trend of the last 20 years where the average improved or at least held steady. The record can be attributed to both market forces and continued advancements in automotive technology that have allowed vehicles to improve their performance while burning less gas.

Economic Changes

One important factor in raising the average MPG over the last few years has been swings in fuel costs combined with the slowdown in the economy. The uncertainty created by prices that have either shot up or plummeted in fairly short periods of time have convinced many drivers to opt for more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Along with this concern, an overall sluggish economy with stagnating wages has forced people to reduce their fuel expenses by switching to smaller, less energy-demanding vehicles. As might be expected, as people have more income and prices moderate, the desire for bigger vehicles increases and there’s less improvement in standards. This is reflected in an estimated 0.1 MPG gain for 2014 that’s much more modest than the 0.5 MPG addition for 2013 and the more impressive 1.2 MPG the year before.

Little Changes That Add Up

Even with greater interest in trucks, SUVs, and minivans, the averages still show improvement. This is because of technological changes that let even the biggest vehicles squeeze more mileage from a tank of gas. One addition that’s boosted mileage is the inclusion of turbocharged versions of various models. This technology allows the same power and performance from a smaller, more efficient engine. Another new technology is direct fuel injection. This method allows for more precise control of how the fuel burns inside the cylinder so that higher compression ratios of around 15 to one can be achieved. Higher ratios allow more energy to be extracted when each cylinder is fired. Changes to automatic transmissions has also decreased fuel usage by providing more gear levels so that they match the vehicle’s speed more exactly. Manufacturers also continue to make changes in materials used in their vehicles to make them lighter weight while maintaining their strength. One recent example is Ford’s latest aluminum-bodied version of the F-150 pickup truck. Non-traditional Vehicles Along with new features in standard automobiles, hybrids have made a more modest contribution to improved mileage. While the term hybrid is usually associated with the Toyota Prius, other offerings like the Ford C-MAX and Honda Accord hybrid have gained market share along with a growing number of other models. Hybrids cut fuel consumption by installing both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor under the hood. Energy is saved by activating the electric motor in stop-and-go urban settings where gas engines would waste fuel waiting at traffic lights. In turn, the batteries used in these systems gain power from normally wasted energy produced by braking and rolling downhill.