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Monster Trucks

Heavier, more powerful and less efficient pickup trucks are offsetting gains in other segments. 

When we moved to our current house from downtown San Francisco, we did what one does when one moves to the Bay Area suburbs. We traded in our bus and train passes for an electric vehicle, which we use when we need to look green, and an earth destroying SUV, which we use for hauling stuff to the Sierras for skiing and going to Costco. I am getting fully justifiable and regular doses of stink eye from graduate students and colleagues when I show up at work in the wrong car. My kid made me buy offsets (good job Noah and I now know who Mr. Beast is). 

When my kid asked me whether big cars are getting worse in terms of their fuel efficiency or better, I went on a diatribe about CAFE rules and got a blank stare. In order to figure out what actually happened to the fuel economy of new vehicles, these two car nuts got super excited by the release of the EPA’s “Automotive Trends Report” just before the holidays. It is the authoritative document on how new model years stack up against past model years – by manufacturer and vehicle type. So we dug in and learned some things that surprised even this seasoned consumer of data. Here are four stylized facts that I took away from reading this excellent report. 

1. Since 2005, new vehicles’ CO2 emissions per mile have dropped by 24% and fuel economy has increased by 32%!


Source: EPA’s Automotive Trends Report.

While these improvements do not match the ones experienced after the mid-1970s oil embargo (partly driven by the adoption of the CAFE standards in 1975), they more than offset the great stagnation in these indicators from 1987 – 2005. There has never been a more efficient new model fleet on sale since we started recording data. High fives. 

2. The biggest improvements in fuel economy have come from the fastest shrinking segment – the sedan (followed by small SUVs). 

Source: EPA’s Automotive Trends Report.

If you care about what we should care about – the total amount of gas consumed, you would want to figure out vehicles sold multiplied by their fuel efficiency. [Yes, what really matters is how much they are driven, but the EPA does not know that.] Above, the light blue area shows how production of sedans has been decimated by the manufacturing of and demand for small (car) and big (truck) SUVs. The one thing that has been roughly flat is the volume of pickup trucks and their fuel economy since 1985

3. Weight gains have been disproportionately concentrated in the Pickup Truck and SUV segments. 


Source: EPA’s Automotive Trends Report.

The average vehicle has gained 3% in weight since 1975. There was a large decline in the late 1970s, followed by a more or less steady increase since the early 1980s. This is like the average human diet – you lose a bunch of weight doing Keto whatever-the-hell and then gain it all back and then some. Regular sedans lost about a quarter of their pounds in the late 70s, but then gained back about half that before leveling off in the last 15 years. Big SUVs chunked up from 1985 to 2005, have shed a bit of that weight over the past decade. The segment with a shocking increase in weight are Pickup Trucks (“what happened Max – did you eat all the fries?”). The growth trend in weight seems to have leveled off but the average pickup today is 28% heavier than the average pickup in 1975. 

4. Today’s cars are ridiculously more powerful than cars in the 1970s. 


Source: EPA’s Automotive Trends Report.

The average vehicle has experienced an 80% increase in horsepower, but this increase is largest in the Pickup segment with a 143% (!) increase in power. We could craft some story about vehicles used by contractors and landscapers, but I have a feeling that a large proportion of these pickup-vehicle miles carry folks to and from indoor jobs or to get milk from the store. These power increases translate into a whopping 50% reduction in 0-60 times for pickups while they burn about the same amount of gas per mile as in the 1980s. Vroom!

If we put it all together in one picture… Hang on, I don’t have to. The excellent folks at the EPA did that for us. The figure below shows us that across all new vehicles, cars and trucks, fuel economy has increased significantly relative to your parents’ (and possibly grandparents’) cars, while they’ve gotten somewhat bigger and heavier, and massively increased power


Source: EPA’s Automotive Trends Report.  

This gain in power and fuel economy at the same time is impressive. The report breaks this down by manufacturer and talks about technologies that made this possible as well (these are not not your grandpas’ turbos! Lots of power for small fuel efficient engines. Hybrids? PHEVs?). 

What does this mean about the future? Much like we have been able to clean up the air while growing the economy, we have been able to make vehicles more efficient, while increasing the thing that consumers apparently want – power. I have no doubt that we can preserve the fun and 0-60 times you have gotten used to, and still make cars much more efficient. In fact, new rules require manufacturers to do so. 

Some of this change will come about by making many more EVs, but some of this change will come about by making the old combustion engine and hybrid engines much more efficient for a while. For example, there is a ton of excitement about the new Ford Maverick. Built on a car platform, but looks like a truck, and the hybrid version gets 42mpg! 

I am supposed to close by whining about how CAFE is not the economist’s favorite regulation, but you know that already, so I will spare you the raised eyebrow. 

Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.

Suggested citation: Auffhammer, Maximilian. “Monster Trucks” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, February 7, 2022,

Maximilian Auffhammer View All

Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.

4 thoughts on “Monster Trucks Leave a comment

  1. Interesting article.
    One issue is that road maintenance is supposed to come from fuel taxes, and wear and tear depends on weight. Vehicles are heavier and use less fuel, sometimes (EV) none. No wonder potholes are increasing.

  2. Have you considered whether gains in efficiency and performance have occurred because of federal CAFE standards or in spite of federal CAFE standards?

  3. A very good article that makes those of us who have watched this automobile power and fuel economy over the last 50 years wonder why so much effort went into increasing horsepower and what fuel economy would be like if this effort had been put into fuel economy instead. Several observations: 1) The real-world fuel economy also depends on the speed driven. I tend to drive the speed limit or just above. On the California freeways speed limits now seem to be substantially ignored, and it seems large pickup trucks are more likely to come past dangerously weaving through slower cars. It is as possibly as the drivers can see over other cars and pick their way through them. The large pickup owner may also feel safer speeding in a big heavy vehicle. This speed will further decrease real-world fuel economy. 2) The new electric pickup trucks such as the new Ford and Tesla projected models are projected to have a range over 300 miles on one charge. This might be a market change that allows many who now have electric cars but CO2 producing pickup trucks to buy an electric pickup. Even if charge mostly ta home at night with a 30 amp 240 this should allow daily driving without need to charge at a charging station. This may help the grid stabilize if these large pickup truck batteries can be connected by vehicle to grid both at home and work, and charge/discharge into the grid depending on the price of electrically. 3) Use of biofuel such as E85 or water ethanol might make large trucks like this more environmentally friendly, if they can be turbocharged when on E85 to increase the compression ratio and increase combustion efficiency. However, the best use of biofuel is probably to use in aircraft, ships, and as backup peaking power in existing gas turbine generators for when renewable power cannot provide grid demand. 4) There are still improvements in fuel economy that can be made, but only useful long term if using net neutral CO2 production. For example, Mazda’s new skyactive X engine is supposed to be over 50% thermal efficiency. If an engine like this were placed in a efficient hybrid like a 50 mpg Prius with thermal efficiency of 40%, there is a possibility of over 60mpg. Use this type of drivetrain with efuel and it might be economically carbon neutral.

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