Fuel Economy and Global Warming: Understanding How Consumer Behavior Influences the Link Between Transportation and Global Warming

Focus Area

Climate Change


Air Quality, Environmental Process






2-3 years

Research Idea Scope

TERI Administrator Note (February 2009): Project cross-referenced in TRB Research Needs Database.  Not recommended at present time by 2009 Air Quality Subcommittee. 

The first goal of this project is to study and understand all aspects of consumer behavior-how they get information on fuel consumption, what they do with it, how it influences their purchase decisions, how much they value the fuel savings, and why they do not value fuel savings for the full useful life of a vehicle. The project should provide information that would help researchers assess the consumer’s value of fuel savings. It should also include an assessment of how much energy security concerns might affect consumer decisions. The second goal is to assess ways to increase public awareness of the link between fuel consumption and global warming. Different strategies should be assessed, including, but not limited to, consumer education campaigns, advertising, social marketing, and outreach to schoolteachers and administrators. Similar cases, such as the increasing public concern with criteria air pollutants, should be evaluated and assessed for relevant lessons. A variety of research tools should be considered for each goal, including focus groups, surveys, and experimental economics.

Urgency and Payoff

Surveys in the United States indicate that at least 75% of the general public believe that global warming is a concern that needs to be addressed. However, there has been little action in the United States in support of this expressed concern. This is partly because most people do not understand that there is a link between vehicle fuel efficiency and global warming gases. Unlike criteria air pollutants, which can cause health problems and damage the environment and property, where public outcry and support has led to tough emission standards, there has been little public demand to do anything about global warming gases. As a consequence, Congress has done very little to improve vehicle efficiency since passing the CAFE standards in 1975. Vehicle purchasers generally rate fuel economy very low on their priority list for selecting a vehicle. It is also very difficult to market improved fuel efficiency to consumers, in part, because vehicle purchasers usually severely discount the value of the fuel savings. Although public research on the value consumers place on fuel savings does not exist, sources with proprietary data (manufacturers, J.D. Powers, etc.) indicate that the average consumer only values about the first 3 years, or 50,000 miles, of fuel savings.

Suggested By

Transportation Research Board 2002 Environmental Research Needs Conference Notes

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