SOUTHFIELD, Mich.—The average age of light vehicles in operation in the U.S. has risen to 12.1 years, increasing by nearly two months during 2020 and elevated by the COVID-19 pandemic, new research from IHS Markit shows. The rise in average age will further drive vehicle maintenance opportunities from an increasingly older vehicle fleet, the research firm said.
COVID-19 and its impact across the U.S. caused a drastic reduction in new vehicle sales, as well as a sudden increase in vehicle scrappage, which was a catalyst for increased velocity in the growth of the average age of light vehicles, IHS Markit said. The pandemic-induced rate of increase in average age is expected to be short-lived, though, as 2021 is expected to bring a return of new vehicle registrations and increased activity in used registrations.
“2020 was a radical departure from the norm and challenged assumptions about how vehicle owners use their vehicles and accumulate miles; from a vehicle fleet perspective, one of the real surprises was the number of vehicles that suddenly exited the active population,” said Todd Campau, associate director of aftermarket solutions at IHS Markit.
In early 2020, the pandemic put significant pressure on new vehicle sales as dealerships worked to implement modified sales processes and deliveries to adhere to social distancing guidelines and create a comfortable vehicle purchasing experience for consumers, even moving some transactions online. A strong finish to 2020 demonstrated the resilience of new vehicle registration since more than eight million new vehicles were registered during the second half of the year, bringing new registrations up to 5.1% of light vehicles in operation for the whole year.
While new vehicle sales proved resilient, the most significant impacts to the age of the passenger vehicle fleet from the pandemic were felt in the rate of vehicle scrappage and vehicle miles traveled. Vehicle miles traveled declined year over year by over 13% in 2020 because of lockdowns and work-from-home policies.
Two related factors in 20201 are expected to mute average age growth, according to IHS Markit analysis. The ongoing microchip shortage is expected to continue to challenge new vehicle production volumes through the fourth quarter, but rounding out the year, IHS Markit expects U.S. light vehicle sales to reach 16.8 million, which would mute average age growth. In addition, during the height of pandemic, some vehicle owners may have allowed registrations to expire because their vehicles were not being driven.
The combined impact of the factors at play in 2020 led to the first decrease in average vehicle age since 2012, with 279 million vehicles in operation as of January 2021, down from nearly 281 million a year prior. In addition, electric vehicles continued to increase, with strong registrations through 2020, pushing total electric vehicles in operation to nearly one million units. The average age of electric vehicles in the U.S. is 3.9 years old and has been hovering between 3.8 and 4.1 years since 2016 as the volume of new registrations of electric vehicles continue to represent a large share of overall EV light vehicles in operation.