A deep dive based on the report by the Federal Highway Administration for 2017 compared to 2009.
When I entered the auto industry in 1985, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the average age of vehicles in operation in the US. After a brutal recession, it had jumped to 7.9 years, from 6.9 years in 1980. But everyone knew consumers would trade their old clunkers for new vehicles; it would bring the average age back to normal. That was the myth of “pent-up demand.” For a while, the average age hovered just below 8 years – trucks getting older, and cars, the dominant vehicle type at the time, getting a little younger. But in 1992, the average age rose to 8.1 years, and by 2017, it reached 11.7 years.
This chart shows the average age by “car” and “truck” (SUVs, car-like compact SUVs, pickups, and vans). Note how the difference between the two categories has disappeared:
The above data of the average age of “vehicles in operation” is based on registrations. There is a second and slightly different but more detailed data set that tracks vehicles owned by US households, based a survey of households that the Federal Highway Administration conducts periodically. It just released the 2017 results. It has conducted eight of these surveys since 1969. The prior survey was for 2009, conducted shortly before the cash-for-clunkers program removed a generation of the oldest vehicles on the road.
The Energy Department’s EIA compared the 2017 results to those of 2009. The average age of vehicles owned by households increased from 9.3 years in 2009 to 10.5 years in 2017. And the EIA produced the chart below that shows the age distribution for vehicles owned by households in 2009 (gray area) and in 2017 (blue area).
For example, in 2009, about 7% of the vehicles were 5 years old (I marked this with a red dot and a red line); in 2017, only 5.8% of the vehicles where five years old (yellow dot). But in 2017, there were more vehicles in the age group of 10 years and older, than in 2009, and this relationship went nearly all the way out toward the end of the tail: In both years, vehicles that were 25 years old accounted for less than 1% of the vehicles owned by households.
The classic distinction between “cars” and trucks” that still haunts auto-industry reporting has by now become largely meaningless as “trucks” include most vehicle types that Americans drive: SUVs, compact SUVs which are essentially cars that are a little higher off the ground, pickups, and minivans. So the EIA split out the average age by more meaningful vehicle types. The average age rose in all vehicle types between 2009 and 2017, ranging from an increase of 0.4 years for “other light trucks” to an increase of 2.4 years for pickups:
The average age for “other light trucks” is quite something: an average age of 18.2 years means that a considerable portion of these vehicles are over 25 years old!
The next chart is very intuitive: Vehicle age by household income. But note, even those households making over $100,000 reported that the average age of their vehicles rose from 7.3 years in 2009 to 8.9 years in 2017. In fact, since 2009, the difference in average vehicle-age between low-income households and high-income households has narrowed from 4.6 years in 2009 to 4.1 years in 2017.
As in 1985, the industry is still fretting about this average age. It translated into lost sales for automakers. But this is largely a result of improved quality. Vehicles last a lot longer than they used to. A well-maintained 10-year-old vehicle with 150,000 miles on it today can look very good and have practically no problems, and getting rid of it is mostly a question of preference, and not of necessity. And then it might be replaced with a recent-model used vehicle!
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