Car Longevity

This Wikipedia article

quotes the NY Times as saying that from the 1970’s to 2000’s, the lifetime of cars went from 100,000 to 200,000 miles.

What effect has this had on car sales?

If the population stayed constant, doubling car life would on average cut car sales in half.

The population has increased since the 70’s, but I don’t think it’s doubled.

Anyone know what has happened to the per-capita rate of car sales over time?

I don’t know the answer to your question, but not everyone buys a new car because their old car has reached a particular mileage. Some people keep their cars for 300,000 miles, while others change their cars after only 40,000 miles.

So the fact that cars don’t fall apart as quickly as they used to may not have that much impact on sales as you might think.

Also, some people trash their cars and never make it to their theoretical lifetime mileage…

I heard a story, maybe on freakonomics, that talked about how hitchhikers have almost completely disappeared. The reason they settled on is that we have far more cars per capita now than in the past. A household may have one car for each adult over 16. In the old days one car per household was the rule.

Some families have more than one car per driver. I know a couple who only have 2 drivers but 4 cars (2 classic, 1 truck, one family sedan). Another has 4 (an SUV, a minivan, a truck, an old economy car). The second also has a motorcycle.

It went from about 0.5 to 0.8 cars per capita from 1970 to today.

We’ve gone from .85 cars per driver in 1960 to 1.2 in 2004. Part of the extra life in cars has gone to people owning more cars per person. The average age of the fleet has also grown over that time.

Sales are booming in third-world (or should we say, formerly third-world) countries like China and India. BIG untapped markets there!

Another part of it is that people are driving a lot more miles. The ubiquity of two (or more) car households also means that even if the replacement interval is stretching a bit, people are typically replacing multiple cars. You do also get something similar to the paradox of immortality seen in dystopian science fiction-- as cars live longer mechanically, the chances of them getting totaled in an accident before they reach the end of their mechanical lifespan are a lot better.

I think more generally, though, new car sales aren’t necessarily driven by the number of cars on the road. People don’t buy new cars because that’s the cheapest transportation option and the people who do buy new cars rarely keep them for anywhere close to the end of their functional lifespan.

I think in very large part that was what was responsible for the incredible used car market that existed in the US from the 80’s through the 2000’s roughly-- cars were lasting a lot longer but people were still buying new ones, so you could pick up a perfectly functional old used car for next to nothing. What seems to have happened, though, is that the 2008 recession was the first one where people really realized that a new car purchase was optional, hence the major downturn in new car sales. Used car prices have gone up as a result both of people buying used instead of new during the recession and fewer new cars entering the market, but even as new car sales have recovered used car prices haven’t gone back to the super-cheap pre-recession levels, so that may be the new normal now.

Unfortunately, there are many, many car accidents. Speaking for myself, several years ago I was involved in an accident involving four cars, and my car was “totaled”, as well as the other cars. A woman ran a red light, but luckily no one was seriously injured. In answer to your question, when cars are beyond repair, the individual has to purchase a new car; hence this gives car salesmen business.

Number of registered cars and miles driven in the US can be seen here

Miles driven per car per year increased from around 9.5k in 1960 to 12.4k in 2006. The number of cars per capita (not per driver) increased from .34 to .45 (looking up US population in standard source).

For US car sales per capita one can compare annual car and light truck sales from Wards Auto (go to site and register, then search) to census estimates. In 2006 car/lt sales were 5.7% of (mid year estimate of) US population. In 2000 it was 6.3%, 1990, 5.7%, 1980 5.0%, 1970 5.0%, 1959 (no 1960 car date) 4.0%, 1951 4.1%.

One problem with doing it just every decade is business cycles (for example sales dropped dramatically to 10.6 mil in 2009 from from 17.0 in '06, back to 15.9 mil in 2013; that was a big business cycle of course but the other numbers all represent some point on wavy trend as well).

But just to take two snapshots, from 1960 to 2006 mileage per car per year and car inventory per person both increased over 30%, but car sales per capita increased only around 43%. I know the stats are more complicated than that to do really correctly, but this would seem to imply some but not dramatic lengthening in average car life in miles over that period. If average miles to scrap for cars actually literally doubled in that period, it would seem the cars per person and/or miles/car/year would have had to increase more than they did in order for car sales to still increase 43% per person.

Again though, after 2007 there was a big drop off in new car sales and the figure hasn’t yet regained 2006’s peak. In that period it’s clear that the average age (and mileage) of cars was increasing further, though again literally double, as 100k to 200k, seems a lot. Perhaps the statement in NYT was quoting a qualitative assessment that modern cars are better able potentially to last to 200k with less major rebuild work than cars used to be, rather than saying that twice the lifetime mileage is actually put on the average car now than used to be.

The reasons that hitchhikers likely disappeared (although they can still be found at truck stops) are that in most states it’s illegal and the rampant stories in the media about hitchhikers going missing or being killed.

Car longevity’s biggest upside/downside is that there is a glut of certain models on the market. A quick perusal of Craigslist,Ebay and the myriad car sites will show that there are hundreds of thousands of all types makes and models for sale, far more than can be ever possible be sold. Nearly any model from 1985 forward can be purchased and most will run for years after you buy them.

There’s almost a “glut” of used cars on the market.

Many people buy new cars regularly long before the cars have failed. My guess is that these people are a large segment of the new car market. If so, longevity of cars affects the used market more than the new market, driving prices down.

Wasn’t “Cash 4 Clunkers” another factor in the decline of quality used cars? Not all of the wealth that was destroyed actually were “clunkers”.

Very debatable. For the most part, the cars that are “missing” out of the used car market are ones that would have been sold new during the downturn years and during the C4C program. So the program actually should have helped that problem, although of course it’s debatable how many of the new car sales would have happened anyways…

The shortage on the newer end of the used car market has also trickled down to the entire market and even the bottom of the barrel used cars are noticeably pricier these days. The vast majority of cars that got junked during the C4C program were all the big SUV’s that were trendy during the 90’s but were worth next to nothing used. Culling some of them out of the used market may have had some effect on the bottom of the used car market, but that’s not the reason why relatively newer used cars are so expensive.

Another issue is that to avoid the sticker shock problem, a lot of manufacturers went to leases. What used to be almost exclusively for commercial fleets decades ago is probably the most common means of getting people to “buy” new cars. It also has the effect of flooding the market with 3-year-old, lower priced but relatively good condition cars. (Although I think it was Chrysler years ago that lowballed the lease market then found nobody wanted a car like theirs after 3 years of use.)

But certainly, years ago people car-pooled because there was only one car in the household. Today it seems almost everyone with a license has a car. The relative cost has gone down too. And with leases and such, the financing barrier has gotten a lot easier.