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Energy Use for Transportation

The United States is a nation on the move. About 29% of U.S. energy consumption in 2016 was for transporting people and goods from one place to another.

Different types of energy sources (or fuels) are used for transportation in the United States

  • Petroleum products: products made from crude oil and petroleum liquids that result from natural gas processing, including gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, residual fuel oil, and propane
  • Biofuels: ethanol and biodiesel
  • Natural gas
  • Electricity (produced from many different energy sources)

Energy sources are used in several major ways

  • Gasoline is used in cars, motorcycles, light trucks, and boats. Aviation gasoline is used in many types of airplanes.
  • Diesel fuel (or distillate fuel) is used mainly by trucks, buses, and trains and in boats and ships.
  • Kerosene is used in jet airplanes and some types of helicopters.
  • Residual fuel oil is used in ships.
  • Biofuels are added to gasoline and diesel fuel.
  • Natural gas is used as compressed natural gas and as liquefied natural gas in cars, buses, and trucks. Most of the vehicles that use natural gas are in government and private vehicle fleets.
  • Natural gas is also used to operate compressors to move natural gas in pipelines.
  • Propane (a hydrocarbon gas liquid) is used in cars, buses, and trucks. Most of the vehicles that use propane are in government and private vehicle fleets.
  • Electricity is used by public mass transit systems and by electric vehicles.
  • Petroleum is the main source of energy for transportation

    In 2016, petroleum products provided about 92% of the total energy the U.S. transportation sector used. Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, contributed about 5% of the total energy the transportation sector used, and natural gas contributed about 3%. Electricity provided less than 1% of the total energy used.

    Gasoline is the most commonly used U.S. transportation fuel

    Gasoline is the dominant transportation fuel in the United States. Gasoline includes aviation gasoline and motor gasoline used in vehicles and in landscaping and construction equipment. Gasoline (excluding fuel ethanol) accounted for 55% of total U.S. transportation energy use in 2016. Gasoline's share goes up to about 59% of total transportation energy use in 2016 when the fuel ethanol that is blended with petroleum gasoline to make finished motor gasoline is included in the percentage share. Total gasoline consumption (including fuel ethanol added to gasoline) for transportation averaged about 9 million barrels (377 million gallons) per day. (About 15 million gallons per day of gasoline were consumed for uses other than for transportation.)

    Biofuels are added to petroleum fuels

    Ethanol and biodiesel were actually some of the first fuels used in automobiles, but they were later replaced by gasoline and diesel fuel. Today, most of the biofuels used in vehicles are added to gasoline and diesel fuel. Government incentives and mandates contributed to large increases in the use of biofuels in the United States over the past several decades. The amount of fuel ethanol added to motor gasoline consumed for transportation in the United States went from about 1.4 billion gallons in 1995 to about 14.4 billion gallons in 2016. Biodiesel consumption increased from 10 million gallons in 2001 to about 2.1 billion gallons in 2016.

Last updated: May 17, 2017

Image of the types of vehicles that use energy and how much they use. The different vehicles using energy include cars, light trucks, other trucks, aircraft, ships and barges, pipelines, trains, rail and buses. Cars use 23% of transportation energy, light trucks use 33%, other trucks use 23%, aircraft use 8%, ships and boats use 4%,  trains and buses use 3%, military uses total 2%, pipeline fuel 2%, and lubricants <1%.
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Cars, vans, and buses are commonly used to transport people. Trucks, airplanes, and trains are used to move people and freight. Barges and pipelines move freight or bulk quantities of materials.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that cars, light trucks, and motorcycles use the largest share of the total energy consumed for transportation in the United States.

Estimates of shares of total U.S. transportation energy use by types or modes of transportation in 2016

  • Light-duty vehicles (cars, small trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles) and motorcycles–56%
  • Large trucks–23%
  • Jets, planes, and other aircraft–8%
  • Boat, ships, and other watercraft–4%
  • Trains and buses–3%
  • The military, all modes–2%
  • Pipelines–2%
  • Lubricants–less than 1%

U.S. gasoline consumption for transportation has increased even though overall fuel economy in cars and light trucks has improved

The national average fuel economy for light-duty vehicles, which include passenger cars, pickup trucks, vans, sport utility vehicles, and crossover vehicles, has improved over time mainly because of fuel economy standards the federal government established for those types of vehicles. However, total motor gasoline consumption for transportation has generally increased after fuel economy standards were set because of increases in the number of vehicles in use —especially light pickup trucks, minivans, sport utility vehicles, and crossover vehicles, which have lower fuel economy than many passenger cars—and in the number of miles traveled per vehicle. The U.S. economic recession and recovery from 2008 through 2012 and relatively high gasoline prices contributed to lower gasoline use during that period. The improving economy and decreases in gasoline prices contributed to increases in gasoline consumption since 2012.

Last updated: June 28, 2017