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Energy Use for Transportation

The United States is a nation on the move. About 28% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2018 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

The major types of energy used for transportation in the United States are

  • Petroleum products—products made from crude oil and from natural gas processing, including gasoline, distillate fuels (mostly 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.
  • Distillate fuels are used mainly by trucks, buses, and trains and in boats and ships.
  • Jet fuel 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, as compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas, is used in cars, buses, trucks, and ships. 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 2018, petroleum products accounted for about 92% of the total U.S. transportation sector energy use. Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, contributed about 5%. Natural gas accounted for about 3%, most of which was used in natural gas pipeline compressors. Electricity provided less than 1% of total transportation sector energy use and nearly all of that in mass transit systems.

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

    Gasoline is the dominant transportation fuel in the United States, followed by distillate fuels (mostly diesel fuel) and jet fuel. Gasoline includes aviation gasoline and motor gasoline. Motor gasoline includes petroleum gasoline and fuel ethanol added to petroleum gasoline. Fuel ethanol includes ethanol (a biofuel) and petroleum denaturants. The petroleum component of gasoline (excluding ethanol) accounted for 54% of total U.S. transportation energy use in 2018. Distillate fuels, mostly diesel, accounted for 23%, and jet fuel for 12%.

    Biofuels are added to petroleum fuels

    Ethanol and biodiesel were actually some of the first fuels used in automobiles but were later replaced by petroleum gasoline and petroleum diesel fuel. Today, ethanol is added to motor gasoline and biodiesel to diesel fuel. In 2018, total biofuels consumption accounted for about 5% of total U.S. transportation sector energy consumption, with ethanol's share at 4% and biodiesel's share at 1%.

Last updated: May 10, 2019

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 percentage of the total energy consumed for transportation in the United States.

Estimates for the shares of total U.S. transportation energy use by types or modes of transportation in 2017

  • Light-duty vehicles (cars, small trucks, vans, sport utility vehicles, and motorcycles)—55%
  • Commercial and freight trucks—23%
  • Jets, planes, and other aircraft—9%
  • Boat, ships, and other watercraft—5%
  • 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 22, 2018