When historians look back on this moment in history, will they see a turning point? It is possible, as new studies seem to confirm what many people have already assumed; the developed world has hit peak car saturation. Since the massive economic meltdown of 2007-08, car sales have shrunk, and continue to shrink, not just in the U.S. but also in Europe. But don’t celebrate yet.
U.S. new car registration reached 14.5 million vehicles in 2012, which is a big comeback from post-recession years, but still a far cry from the more than 16 million vehicles sold in 2007. But more importantly, a new study shows that Americans are also driving less, and unlike auto sales, the number of culmative miles driven seems to be dropping.
As this chart indicates, Americans drove three times more in 2007 than they did in 1975, racking up more than 3 trillion total miles driven. But after 2007, total miles driven has dropped by more than a 100 billion miles in the U.S., and seems like it may continue to go down. Americans are getting around by other means.
In Europe, the story is much the same; new car registrations are estimated to be around 12.5 million vehicles, and could drop to as low as 11 million cars in 2013. This is the sixth-straight year in which new car sales slowed, as increasing fuel costs and ample public transit options convince Europeans to walk, bike, and take the tube as frequently as possible.
But then there is China, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia. In China alone, there were 19.3 million new car sales despite what can only be described as the ninth level of Traffic Hell and air so thick with pollution that Beijing advises residents not to go outside. And yet car sales in China are still projected to go up another 10% in 2013. There are still plenty of aspirational human beings who need, and want, motorized transportation.
Yet in the Europe and U.S. at least, cars seem to have reached peak popularity. What does this mean for automakers? A lot of things. Suffice to say, this may be a very important point on history…or perhaps just another blip on the graph.