A Brief History Of: Fuel Efficiency

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Don Ryan / AP

Time was, Americans didn't worry much about miles per gallon. The first cars had small engines and got stellar gas mileage--as high as 21 m.p.g. for the Model T. But as vehicles got faster and larger and grew tail fins, efficiency plummeted. Congress didn't set fuel standards until after the oil embargo of 1973. By 1985, efficiency had improved dramatically, but momentum slowed as the government let standards stagnate. President Barack Obama's support for raising fuel efficiency to 35 m.p.g. by 2020--a move that could save 2 million bbl. of oil a day--has environmentalists cheering.

[This article contains a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

Fleet m.p.g.*

Government standards

Fuel efficiency plateaued as car companies focused on other gas-guzzling consumer demands

'86 President Ronald Reagan lowers car-mileage standards, effectively halting efficiency improvements

'90 The Ford Explorer is introduced. The best-selling SUV in the U.S. gets as little as 16 m.p.g. and ushers in an era of big cars

'00 Toyota's Prius hits the U.S. market, the first mainstream hybrid vehicle in the U.S. It boasts 52 m.p.g. on the highway

'08 Crude oil tops $140 per bbl. American consumers pay upwards of $4 for a gallon of gas at the pump

Sources: Environmental Protection Agency, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. *The "Fleet m.p.g." above reflects conditions produced in a lab. Actual on-road fuel efficiency is lower--24.1 m.p.g. for cars and 18.1 m.p.g. for trucks in 2008