U-turn: Our driving profile, on taking the eco-smart road and what that will take

Americans are driving more than ever before. And, in the United States, because of all the “stop-and-go” or “stopped-in-traffic” driving, drivers are delayed an average of 44 hours annually. Non-eco-friendly driving in addition to any delay associated with such, contribute both to poor air quality and human health degradation.

Yes, it’s true that driving has increased. But, so too has driving in cars and trucks propelled by non-internal-combustion means, as would be the case with battery-electric or fuel-cell vehicles and those whose under-the-hood power plants consist of, for example, combined power supplies (i.e. gasoline-driven engines aided by rechargeable batteries: hybrids – plug-in types or otherwise), one responsible for supplying power when the other one isn’t. Reasons behind people making the switch are many and include concerns over damage to the environment and air, not to mention factors that have to do with efficiency and saving money, to name several.

To better explain why what is occurring is, provided below is low-down or background on what, where and how we drive.

What we drive

There is no question that over the years, transportation has cleaned up its act considerably. This is not the same, though, as saying that this sector could not go farther still in this regard. Remember: There are some 260 million motor vehicles of one description or another registered in the U.S. Worldwide, the number exceeds a billion.

When you consider that U.S. population currently stands at 326 million people, that there are the number of registered vehicles there are, that driving is becoming more automated (driver assist through automation courtesy of technological innovation and advancement), that our income dollars go farther today than they did in the past, that our economy today is healthy, fuel prices are about half what they were when they peaked not so many years back, when you take into account all of these factors, plus the number of models on the market available for purchase or lease, it is no wonder driving has elevated to the degree it has – better than 3.2 trillion miles logged per year. And, that’s all on 4 million roadway miles total, by the way.

As to what we’re driving these days, the field is dominated by cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles equipped with and powered by internal combustion engines. Though the balance of power is shifting of late as there is a new contender, it being those vehicles whose emissions are classified as either “low” or “no.” We’re talking hybrids, electrics, and fuel-cell electrics. Presently, it is about an 85 percent ICE- (internal-combustion-engine-) class, 15 percent everything else. All else being equal, the non-ICE class has a higher initial cost, but over the life of the vehicle, these vehicles are less expensive to both operate and maintain. It’s a changing dynamic, albeit a slow one.

Where we drive

Cities, is where we drive most often. It’s pretty much been that way since the get-go. And, it would stand to reason because cities maintain the lion’s share of population.

One generally does not find congestion on primary or secondary roads out in rural America. It’s found primarily in cities or close to them.

Another tell-tale sign is vehicle-service related. Car washes, auto parts stores, service and gas stations in cities are a dime-a-dozen; in the rural districts, not so much. And, driving can be work-, vacation-, shopping-, entertainment- or recreation- or past-time related. People drive to get children to and from school, after-school activities; to get to and from doctors and dentists offices; some is obviously emergency-services connected; and some is even driving for driving’s sake; and then there’s the teaching-and-learning-to-drive part – driver’s training. It’s a pretty extensive list. And, we drive on both surfaced and unsurfaced roads alike.

How we get there

Mostly alone. In fact, single-occupancy vehicle use in cities averages, I would say, somewhere around 75 percent. That’s three-fourths of driving taking place in vehicles occupied by a single person. That’s not a very efficient way to travel. When you consider that back in the day when the main mode of travel was by animal back, one horsepower was all it took to get one or two people to and from, and that’s, mind you, over almost any type of terrain. One horsepower. The work of animals in this capacity is now done by a variety of modes including those of foot, bike, motorcycle, motor scooter or in automobiles or in using other types of automated and/or mechanized means, all of which are less efficient than travel by horse. And, less efficient means greater energy expended to provide the same service. Less efficient can also mean, but doesn’t absolutely have to mean, less sustainable with greater damage to the environment, air and health – one doesn’t necessarily beget the other. Those three, have, as we all know, become bigger issues of late.

The ‘road’ to recovery   

In Europe, many motorists subscribed to the idea that diesel cars were less harmful to the atmosphere where carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were concerned and therefore were deemed by many to be more environmentally friendly. Sadly, that proved not to be the case and, in fact, these vehicles discharged higher levels of pollutants like particulates, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and other ozone-forming gases than what comparable gasoline-powered vehicles did.

That said, if a way could be found to enable gasoline in engines to burn much more completely and therefore put out fewer emissions than what the best ICE vehicles do now, that would be a definite step up and a step in the right direction.

So how will we know when America is driving sustainably? If conditions are such that transportation emissions take a U-turn and not only begin but continue to trend negatively, that’s a clue.


In the corrections department, as it originally appeared, aggregate driving in the United States was stated to be at a level of more than 32 trillion miles per year. This is not the case and, in fact, the number provided was off by a factor of 10. The article has been revised with the now correct information.

This post was last revised on May 14, 2020 @ 12:27 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel

2 thoughts on “U-turn: Our driving profile, on taking the eco-smart road and what that will take”

  1. What proportion of new drivers are using electrical powered vehicles? If the proportion of them is greater than the rate at which electrical power generation is by “natural” resources like wind, tides, geothermal and solar sources, then in fact the added electricity will come from fossil fuels and this means more CO2 being released and more climate heating. So it may not be such good news after all.

    I am looking forward to the “global village” effect of the internet becoming so powerful that fewer face-to-face meetings are needed and communicators can manage without needing to leave their computer screens.

    • Related to what you wrote, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy in its May 3, 2017 press release: “New report: 80% cut in CO2 emissions if cities embrace 3 revolutions in vehicle technology: automation, electrification, and, most importantly, ride sharing,” offered: “As long as electric vehicles are mostly powered from low-carbon electricity sources and not carbon-intensive sources like coal or other fossil fuels–an underlying assumption motivating the electrification revolution–the 3R scenario would generate 0.7 gigatons of CO2 emissions worldwide annually by 2050, as opposed to 4.6 gigatons in the BAU scenario emissions and 1.7 gigatons in the emissions in the 2R scenario. Transportation costs would plummet, costing about $8 trillion annually in the 3R scenario, as opposed to $13 trillion in business as usual or $14 trillion in the 2R scenario.”

      Referenced link: https://www.itdp.org/who-we-are/for-the-press/

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