Cars in US are Getting Even Older with More Trucks and SUVs

The turnover of household vehicles has slowed since 2009, based on U.S. Department of Transportation surveys of household vehicle travel. The 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) reported that households held on to their cars, trucks, and vans longer. The average vehicle age has increased from 9.3 years in 2009 to 10.5 years in 2017, suggesting that many households have delayed the purchase of a new vehicle and continuing a trend of U.S. households operating vehicles longer.

The aging of U.S. household vehicles was reported across all light-duty vehicle types, in particular for pickup trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles. By comparison, the average age of in-use cars increased, in absolute terms, from 9.5 years in 2009 to 10.3 years in 2017. The increases in average age between 2009 and 2017 ranged from a low of 0.4 years for other light trucks to a high of 2.4 years for pickup trucks. The slowing of vehicle turnover has implications for transportation fuel consumption, because newer vehicles tend to have better fuel economies.

Households with lower incomes tend to have older vehicles than households with higher incomes, but since 2009, that gap has slightly narrowed. The average age of vehicles used by higher-income households has increased more than those used by lower-income households. Overall, the aging of the vehicle fleet suggests many households have delayed purchasing a new vehicle or have instead purchased a used vehicle. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditures Survey show that spending on vehicle repair and maintenance has also increased in recent years.

Even as vehicle turnover has slowed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that fuel economy has continued to increase because of technology advances adopted across all vehicle types of new light-duty vehicles. Average and aggregate energy use by vehicles, however, also is affected by travel demand and characteristic data not incorporated in vehicle-age statistics, such as variations among household vehicle ownership and use.

The NHTS has been conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration eight times since 1969. The 2009 survey was conducted before the federal Car Allowance Rebate System—which accelerated new vehicle purchases in July and August 2009—had started.

Households in the United States with more vehicles not only travel more, but they often put more miles on their most-used (primary) vehicle compared with households with fewer vehicles, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey (NHTS). Households with just one vehicle drove an average of about 11,100 miles per year, while households with more than five vehicles traveled a total of about 41,800 miles; each additional vehicle within a household had less average use. About two-thirds of households have either one or two vehicles.

U.S. households with more vehicles also tend to drive their primary vehicle more than households with fewer vehicles. While a two-vehicle household travels about 14,600 miles annually with the most-used vehicle, a five- or more vehicle household travels about 18,600 miles annually with the most-used vehicle.

For U.S. households with more than one vehicle, the average use per vehicle within a household is greatest in a two-vehicle home, where the average vehicle travels about 11,000 miles. This average declines as households add more vehicles; a six-vehicle home averages about 6,700 miles per vehicle.

Gasoline consumption by household vehicles depends on both driving behavior (measured by vehicle miles traveled, or VMT) and vehicle fuel economy (measured in miles per gallon). Changes in gasoline prices are typically the primary factor in short-term fluctuations in gasoline expenditures, while changes in VMT and fuel economy (i.e., vehicle purchases) are more likely to influence longer-term trends.

In 2017, the total VMT for household vehicles was 2.11 trillion vehicle miles, down from the 2.25 trillion vehicle miles reported by NHTS for 2009, the previous NHTS survey year. Vehicle travel in households with only one vehicle increased from 2009 to 2017, which was the only category to do so.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, National Household Travel Survey