Even as cars become more efficient and fuels become cleaner, the sheer number of vehicles on the road and the distances we travel in them may overwhelm whatever gains the world achieves in fuel economy, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute.
World production of passenger cars has rebounded from the dip seen in 2008-9 and is projected to reach an all-time record of 66.1 million for 2012, according to the report. Adding the numbers for light trucks, 76.8 million light vehicles were produced in 2011, and that figure could surpass 80 million in 2012.
Not surprisingly, China’s explosive growth is driving the expansion. It was the no. 1 producer of light vehicles in 2011 with 17.3 million, nearly double the amount it manufactured just four years ago.
The report’s author, Michael Renner, aggregated research on global auto production, fuel efficiency standards and distances traveled over the past few decades. “Fuel efficiency has been improving in all the major car nations over the past decade, and stricter consumption limits for coming years have been enacted or proposed,” Renner writes, with Japan and the EU leading in fuel economy. Still, he projects that current EU targets for 2015 are “too soft to be an effective driver of improvements,” and notes that the 2025 goals recently announced by the Obama administration are similar to what Japan already requires for 2015.
So far, it seems unlikely that the advent of electric cars will significantly mitigate the emissions produced by so much road travel. EV production “is still at barely perceptible levels,” the Worldwatch report noted. In 2011, the number produced amounted to less than half of 1 percent of all vehicles; hybrids accounted for less than 2 percent. Even though China, for example, has set a goal of having 5 million hybrid and electric vehicles on its roads by 2020, research indicates that so far, the country’s EV production and its construction of charging infrastructure won’t be sufficient to achieve that goal. Even if China were to meet its goals for EVs, that number would still be a small fraction of its total fleet—and those EVs would be powered by a grid that is largely dependent on coal.
It also remains unclear whether consumer demand for electric vehicles will ever be strong enough to boost their market share. In the United States, at least, weak sales recently led GM, the world’s largest auto manufacturer, to suspend production of the Chevy Volt for a second time this year.
But overall sales for passenger vehicles have steadily increased, according to the Worldwatch report, and the total number of all vehicles on the road worldwide could reach 1 billion by the end of this year.
As car ownership expands, the distance drivers travel will also have an effect on fuel use. Renner’s report says travel distances have leveled off over the past decade in many countries including the United States, Japan and the U.K.; but they have grown many other places, including China. Even so, the average distance traveled per person by private car in China, at 621 miles (1,000 kilometers), is far less than that of the U.S. and Canada, at 8,389 miles (13,500 kilometers) and 9,072 miles (14,600 kilometers) respectively.
With so many tanks to fill, it seems that gas prices and the role of fuel subsidies will continue to have a daily impact on people’s lives for many years to come. In the United States, drivers are still waiting for some autumn relief at the pump: The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline Wednesday hovered near $3.86, not far from the year’s high of $3.94.