A fundamental and dramatic shift is happening in America when it comes to our addiction to gasoline. We're slowly but steadily cutting back on our gas-guzzling ways. This doesn't mean we're going back to the days of the horse and buggy. But make no mistake: The amount of gasoline we consume is dropping, and the implications go well beyond the auto industry.
"We are seeing a modest sea change in America's gas consumption patterns," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst with GasBuddy.com. "There's not any one factor behind it, but several factors. I think we've seen the peak in U.S. gas consumption."
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For the record, that peak came in 2008. Since then, there has been a steady—though not huge—decline in the amount of gas used in America. Currently, gas consumption is down about 25 million gallons a day compared with last year.
So what's driving the change? Here are several factors
More Fuel-Efficient Vehicles
The latest data from the University of Michigan show that the average fuel economy of new vehicles sold in June was 24.7 miles per gallon (mpg). That is down 1/10th of a gallon from the recent high of 24.8 mpg. Since the school's Transportation Research Institute began tracking average fuel economy in 2007, the average fuel economy of new models sold in the U.S. has risen 18.7 percent.
The main reason for that is the increase in CAFE standards that will require the fleet of vehicles sold by each automaker to achieve 34.1 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. The result has been an explosion in cars and trucks that use turbocharged engines and other technology that makes the vehicles go further on a gallon of gas. The consumer is eating it up, and this trend is expected to continue for the near future.
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Americans Forgoing Cars
Strange as it may seem to many of us who couldn't wait to get our first car, a growing number of people have decided they don't want to own a car.
According to CNW Marketing, the percentage of U.S. homes without a car has hit a high of 9 percent. As recently as 2006, just 5 percent of households chose not to have a vehicle.
What's changed? The recession forced a lot of people to get rid of their car or truck. There also has been explosive growth in car-share companies over the past five years. In addition, America is becoming more urban, with more people living in cities where they can use mass transit or bike-share programs, or simply walk. Bottom line: More people are saying they don't need a car or truck.
Telecommuting and Online Shopping Are Growing
Gone are the days when it was unusual to know someone who worked at home. Thanks to higher quality, less expensive telecommunication systems it's becoming more common for American workers to telecommute. In 2000, the Census Bureau found 3.3 percent of the population telecommuted; by 2010, it was up to 4.3 percent.
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Meanwhile, traffic at shopping centers has edged lower. It's not a huge drop, and when Americans hit the shopping mall or local store, the amount of money they are spending on that trip has increased. Some of this change is due to the growth in online shopping. It's a shift in American society that many believe is permanent.
Fewer Miles, Greater Implications
The drop in gasoline consumption could have huge implications for the economy. One example involves gasoline tax revenues for state and local municipalities—the primary funding source for maintaining roads, highways and bridges. As gas consumption drops, so does the revenue states are collecting. That's why some states are considering a user fee for electric vehicles.
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And that's just the start.
Gasoline fueled America's incredible growth in the 20th century, and it's still the primary driver of life in this country. We're just learning to use less of it.
Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.