Driving to Pluto and back – and Pluto and back – on less gas than we used to

Three trillion miles.

That’s half a light year, the distance it takes light to travel in six months. Or about 325 round trips from the Earth to the former planet Pluto (not Pluto, W. Va.) and back. Let that sink in for a moment.

OK. Now that it has, we can report that Americans collectively have traveled that far in the past year. That’s the second highest total distance ever reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation, surpassed only by the peak reached in 2007, just before The Great Recession.

That’s a lot of driving. And it took north of 210 million of us to do it, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

“To put that figure in perspective, consider that [spacecraft] Voyager 1, which has traveled farther than any other man-made object, has flown about 12.2 billion miles by the end of 2014,” wrote Richard Read online at The Car Connection, an automotive review website. “Americans traveled more than 247 times that distance – and we did it in just one year, while Voyager has taken 37.”

You might think that means Americans also are consuming more gasoline than ever.

And, yet, total fuel consumption has decreased by 11 percent over the past decade and, average fuel consumption is at its lowest level in at least 30 years, according to Michael Sivak, a UMTRI researcher.

“The reductions in the fuel-consumption rates reflect, in part, the added contribution of the improvements in fuel economy,” Sivak said. “Overall, the combined evidence from this and [previous] studies indicates that – per person, per driver and per household – we now have fewer light-duty vehicles, we drive each of them less, and we consume less fuel that in the past.”

Over the last 30 years, the annual per person consumption of gasoline has declined to 392 gallons from 400, per driver consumption to 583 gallons from 608, per vehicle use to 524 from 602, and per household consumption to 1,011 gallons from 1,106, according to Sivak.

The UMTRI research encompasses all light vehicles in the country – cars, pickup trucks, SUVs and vans.

The bottom line: While collectively Americans are driving more miles than at any time in our history (except 2007), we’re doing it a lot more efficiently and using less fuel.

So the next time you plan a trip to Pluto (West Virginia, not the former planet), you can feel a little better about filling up the gas tank.