COVID-19 is causing more old cars to stay on the road in the US

US consumers were already driving older cars and hanging onto them longer, and the pandemic is only accelerating that trend.

Sean Szymkowski
It all started with Gran Turismo. From those early PlayStation days, Sean was drawn to anything with four wheels. Prior to joining the Roadshow team, he was a freelance contributor for Motor Authority, The Car Connection and Green Car Reports. As for what's in the garage, Sean owns a 2016 Chevrolet SS, and yes, it has Holden badges.
Sean Szymkowski
2 min read
New York City traffic
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New York City traffic

More older cars mean fewer new car sales, higher emissions and lower safety.

Bloomberg/Getty Images

Even previous to the coronavirus pandemic hitting the US, researchers had already concluded that Americans are holding onto their cars for a longer period of time: nearly 12 years. That's the highest figure in almost 20 years.

The auto industry information gurus at IHS Markit have just released their latest study analyzing the age of vehicles on US roads, and while you may think this has everything to do with boosting new car sales, an old vehicle fleet on the road also does no good for emissions and safety concerns. Newer cars are (generally) far more fuel efficient than older vehicles.

The average age of a vehicle in operation increased to 11.9 years, up one month from last year. All signs already pointed to few fluctuations from the year prior, but the pandemic could very well inflate the figure higher. New vehicle sales last year accounted for just 6.1% of vehicles in operation and IHS Markit estimates we could see the figure drop to 5% or less. Fewer new cars on the road will increase the average age in studies to come.

Interestingly, scrappage rates, or the number of older cars retired and off US roads, increased. Typically, that'd make room for new vehicles to hit the road, but the research showed a sharp decline in new car sales created the perfect storm for an aging vehicle fleet. Increased new vehicle prices and longer-term financing also play a part. Buyers may simply keep an older car because they can't afford a new one. Or, increasingly popular 72- and 84-month financing may lock buyers in for a longer period of time.

IHS Markit expects the average vehicle age to only grow in the immediate future as more households look at spending habits and navigate the "new normal," even post-COVID-19.

But, there's a silver lining for one industry: the aftermarket. As Americans continue to drive older cars, they'll need repairs, and aftermarket companies by and large fulfill the need. Whether it's parts or general servicing, the sector is poised for growth.

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