Staff Pick: Why Are U.S. Cars Getting Older?

September 14, 2020
Stock image of traffic jam in Los Angeles

The On the Economy blog will periodically rerun blog posts that were of particular interest. The following is a post from March that looks at the link between U.S. recessions and the rising average age of cars on the road.

In 1970, the average age of a car in use in the U.S. was less than 6 years. By 2016, the average age had climbed past 11 years. Why are cars getting older, and what role do recessions play?

In a recent Economic Synopses essay, Assistant Vice President and Economist Bill Dupor noted that while the number of cars on the road has been increasing, per capita sales of new vehicles have been falling. “This has occurred because the scrappage rate (i.e., the rate at which autos are taken out of use) has been falling,” he wrote.

The Effects of Recessions

Dupor also noted that new vehicle sales typically fall more heavily during recessions, which causes the average age of cars on the road to rise even faster. One of two things may happen during the subsequent recoveries:

  • The average age of cars could drop if new vehicle sales rebound strongly enough.
  • The average age could remain higher than its prerecession levels if new vehicle sales aren’t rebounding as much.

Dupor noted that the latter effect was strongest following recessions after the mid-1980s.

Trends in the Increases in Auto Average Ages

Since 1970, the average age of cars on the road has never experienced a yearly decline. It has either held steady (as it did for 10 of the years in that period) or risen. Dupor broke the increases into two groups:

  • Years of a business cycle peak or one of the four years that follow
  • All other years

He found that in the years of a business cycle peak plus the four years that followed, the average age of cars increased by about two months, while the average age increased by one month in the other years.

Potential Reasons Sales Don’t Rebound Following Recessions

Dupor provided a few reasons that new vehicle sales haven’t rebounded strongly following recent recessions. One is that cars may simply be more reliable now, lessening the need for households to buy new cars as their current cars age.

Another possibility he put forth was that negative shocks may have caused people to rethink how often they purchase new vehicles. “Once a negative shock—for example, a recession—forced the owner to hold a car for an additional year or two, he or she may have learned that the reliability of the car extended well into its fifth and sixth year—resetting the rule of thumb” for when to purchase a new car, Dupor wrote.

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