Cars are lasting longer, which means more of them than ever are cruising U.S. roadways, according to a new report issued by the statistical compay Polk.
The fleet of cars and light trucks registered in the United States increased by 5 million units between 1995 and 1996 alone. Since 1970, the fleet has more than doubled in size from 98.1 million units to 198.3 million last year, according to Polk.
The growth in popularity of light trucks, and sport-utilities in particular, has contributed to the increase. While the number of cars in operation has remained stable at about 120 million since 1986, the number of trucks has grown by about 40 million during that span. The truck share of the market has grown from 27.7 percent - 44.8 million - in 1986 to 37.2 percent - 73.7 million - in 1996.
POPULATION BOOSTS FLEET
But the fleet is growing primarily because the population of the country is growing, and not because individual demand for vehicles is growing, according to Bill Sawyer, vice president of transportation products for Polk, based in Southfield, Mich.
'One of things we're starting to look at is the fact households have as many vehicles as they need,' said Sawyer. 'We're in a saturation state. We haven't seen much change in that in the last five years.'
In 1990 there were 1.92 vehicles per household and 1.07 vehicles per driver, while in 1995, there were 1.91 vehicles per household and 1.09 vehicles per driver.
'You've heard people say the love affair with the automobile is at an end,' he said. 'Maybe it's not at an end. Maybe people just have all the vehicles they need.'
People are also putting off buying vehicles and using the money to buy other things, such as personal computers.
'As people get as many cars as they need and they start lasting longer, maybe we can start deferring purchases if the price of entry is not attractive to us,' he said.
The median age of cars and trucks has been rising for seven consecutive years. In fact, the median age of automobiles has increased from 4.9 years in 1970 to 7.9 years in 1996. The median age of trucks grew from 5.9 years to 7.7 years during the same span.
Vehicles are definitely getting longer in the tooth these days. Polk looked at vehicle fleet by looking at the newest 90 percent. The oldest car in that group was 18.3 years old, up from 14 years old in 1987.
VEHICLES ARE BETTER BUILT
'This is further evidence that manufacturers' efforts to increase quality have paid off and automobiles can certainly be designed to last even longer,' said Sawyer. 'The question remains, at what cost?
'Certainly you can build vehicles that last a long time, but those vehicles cost millions and millions. At what point is the public going to say 'we can't afford those any longer?' '
That creates a market opportunity for a manufacturer to employ a 'Timex' strategy - creating a well-built car, but one designed to give good service for only a dozen years or so, Sawyer said. Sawyer referred to the theory of 'synchronous durability,' where all the parts wear out simultaneously. If such a car was attractively priced, demand could surge, he said.
'It's certainly an enticing theory and one we're going to keep an eye on,' he said.
As vehicles have aged, the percentage of them being sent to the scrap yard also has steadily declined. When a vehicle is not re-registered, Polk counts it as scrap.
Polk produces its Vehicles in Operation report from state vehicle registration records and sells the information to vehicle manufacturers, aftermarket suppliers and the tire, oil, glass and insurance industries. The report is derived from vehicles registered between July 1, 1995 and June 30, 1996.