Profile in Gluttony

This past week, the consulting firm CERA released a report providing a snapshot of the ongoing American love affair with the automobile.

Gasoline and the American People

The highlights of the report would almost be amusing if they weren’t so frightening in its portrayal of a culture that is blindly yet deeply addicted to a modality that is both unsustainable and hollow.

For instance, in America, there is now 1.15 vehicles per registered driver. That’s right, every driver has at least one car. In China, the ratio is 1 car per hundred drivers.

Relative to 25 years ago, the average American is driving 40% more miles. Where are we going? The country isn’t getting any bigger.

Another example: even though gasoline prices in the U.S. rose from $1.59 per gallon in 2003 to $2.30 per gallon in 2005 and $2.61 per gallon the first 11 months of 2006, U.S. gasoline demand didn’t even decline, but in fact rose by 0.3% in 2005 and 1.0% in 2006. In other words, a 60% increase in prices only caused demand growth rates to be halved from the recent annual average of 1.6%. Talk about inelastic demand!

Even with these major increases in gasoline prices, SUVs continue to hold appeal — still representing more than 50% of all new vehicle sales in the U.S. True, smaller SUVs are gaining share at the expense of the real hogs (i.e., Hummers), but the trend away from cars to SUVs means that fuel efficiency of the average new vehicle in the U.S. has remained virtually flat since 1990 at between 19-20 mpg — despite the major technological improvements that have occurred since then. Alas, all these improvements have been oriented towards comfort/convenience and horsepower. Notwithstanding the hype and growth, hybrids still remain a tiny niche, at about 1.4% of the new vehicle market.

Back in the mid-1960’s, NBC aired a wholly forgettable TV sitcom called My Mother the Car. If the show were made today, maybe it would have to be be titled My Ego the Car.

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