American Car Fleet Hits a Record 252 Million

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 13, 2014

When Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said earlier this week that he was forgetting about patent protection and opening his technology to other automakers, he cited “the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day,” with total production approaching 100 million a year. Far less than one percent of the world’s new cars run on electrons, as Tesla’s do.

It’s actually worse than that. New tailpipes are swamping any electric car climate and clean air gains. Research from IHS Automotive shows we’re now hosting a whopping 252,700,000 cars and light trucks on American roads, the most ever.   

The auto fleet grew by 3.7 million since July of 2013, which translates as a 1.5 percent growth rate (the biggest since way back in 2004-2005). Further, IHS said, we’re not junking cars at our former robust pace. In 2013, 11.5 million U.S. cars were junked, compared to 14 million (a record) in 2012.

I’ve reported before that we’re keeping our cars longer, 11.4 years now. That’s because vehicles don’t fall apart as quickly as they used to, rarely rust, and are very expensive to replace in a still-challenged economy. When you combine people holding onto their rides with the robust new car sales we’re experiencing now (more than 15 million were sold in 2013) it’s a recipe for crowded American roads. And 2014 is shaping up as another banner year for sales--more than 16 million.

In part because of those big sales numbers, IHS expects to see newer cars zero to five years old increasing 32 percent in the auto fleet by 2019, and older ones six to 11 years old declining by 21 percent. But that retention thing kicks in, too: The really old vehicles--12 years or more--are also increasing, 15 percent by 2015.

Globally, we’re seeing a huge expansion of the auto population, especially in car-happy China. Phil Gott, director of long-range planning at IHS Automotive, said that the world now has roughly 800 million to a billion light-duty cars and trucks today.

Auto sales climbed 13 percent to 1.5 million in China last April, Bloomberg reports. The kicker is that demand was up because the country is about to limit new-car registrations to combat air pollution and climate emissions. Buyers wanted to get in under the wire before those restrictions kicked in.

In our American free market, we can own as many cars as we want, and people take advantage of that opportunity.

Gott, by the way, doesn’t think that Musk’s tactic will lead to any kind of electric car renaissance among the world’s carmakers. “I’m not so sure that offering a technology that is more expensive and more limited than the competition to more automakers is going to make much of a difference to the general public,” he said.

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