The world has come a long way since 1929, when 80 percent of the world’s car registrations were in the United States, which also manufactured 90 percent of the vehicles. Now China produces the most cars and its annual sales rank top in the world. China overtook the United States in vehicle sales during the Great Recession. But it’s not like Americans are no longer buying cars; the US broke its own record last year. In 2016, sales records were also set in nations as diverse as China, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Mexico.
China has emerged as the world’s largest automotive market. In 2016, China’s sales of passenger cars, light trucks (including sport utility vehicles, or SUVs) and commercial vehicles reached 23.9 million. This is 6.5 million more cars than were sold in the United States. This gap is likely to grow, because China's large population offers greater opportunity for growth. The United States has about eight times as many vehicles per 1,000 population as China. The US leads in total vehicles with 260 million compared to China's 140 million, according to OICA, the international vehicle manufacturers organization (Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles),
From virtually the beginning of motorization more than a century ago, the United States dominated world automotive production but during the Great Recession China assumed sales leadership. As sales dropped precipitously in the US, Chinese sales rose 47 percent in 2009.
Sales in 2016 were aided by temporarily lower taxes on small engine vehicles, which ended on December 31. Still, analysts expect another four to five percent growth in vehicle sales in 2017.
As in a number of other nations with rising volumes, SUVs took an increasing share of total sales figures. SUV sales were up 44 percent, eight times the increase in passenger car sales. Now, nearly three-quarters as many SUVs as passenger cars are sold in China (Note).
Buick was one of the international pioneers in China’s automobile market, from agreements after US President Richard Nixon’s early 1970s visit. Buicks had been favored by some government officials. and were the first American cars built in China (in a joint venture with local SAIC ). China’s Premier Zhou Enlai, who served from 1949 to 1976, owned one before World War II (Photo: Premier Zhou En Lai’s Buick, Museum in Nanjing). Today, 80 percent of the world’s Buicks are sold in China.
In recent years the Chinese market has become more diverse. Virtually all of the international players sell in China and there are a number of local manufacturers. Sweden’s flagship brand, Volvo, now owned by Chinese interests, who now ship a “made in China” model to the United States (the only Chinese import).
China’s infrastructure is well prepared for its record breaking sales. China leads the world in its length of motorways (freeways or controlled access expressways), with 123,500 kilometers (76,700 miles) as of the end of 2015 (Photo: G4 Expressway between Zhengzhou, Henan and Wuhan, Hubei). This compares to the latest available US total of 104,500 (64,900 miles) in 2014.
China’s cities are served by extensive freeway systems. In Beijing there are five freeway ring roads and a sixth partially opened. But cars have become so popular that the high city densities have predictably created both horrific traffic. Further, despite effective emission controls, the high density of traffic contributes to the country’s severe air pollution problems . The plan for a more decentralized Beijing and environs (Jin-Jing-Ji) is aimed at least partially at reducing traffic congestion.
Photo: Zhou En Lai’s Buick, Zhou En Lai Museum, Nanjing
Photo: G4 Expressway between Zhengzhou, Henan and Wuhan, Hubei
A record 17.6 million light vehicles were sold in the second largest market, the United States, which broke last year’s record of record of 17.4 million. Light duty truck sales captured nearly 60 percent of the market, with an annual increase of 7.2 percent. This included SUV’s, (and “crossovers”) with 38 percent of the market and a 7.4 percent increase. Passenger cars continued their decline by 8.1 percent, to 40 percent of the market.
The core European Union 15 nations, along with Norway and Switzerland taken together account for the third largest car market. . There was no new record there last year but the strongest volume since 2007. Nearly 14 million light vehicles were sold, approximately six percent below the record set in 1999.
The United Kingdom set a record, with sales of 2.6 million vehicles, up two percent from 2015. Fifteen of the seventeen nations had sales increases. Italy, Portugal and Ireland had the greatest gains, at 17.5 percent, 16.2 percent and 15.8 percent respectively. Spain also exceeded a ten percent gain (10.9 percent), while Finland gained 9.3.
Strong gains were also posted in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Belgium, with increases of from seven to eight percent. However, neighboring Netherlands had by far the largest drop, 14.7 percent. Large markets France (up 5.1 percent) and Germany (4.5 percent) contributed importantly to the higher Western Europe sales number. Sales were down 2 percent in Switzerland.
A More Mobile World
In 2014, world vehicle sales reached 89 million (Figure 1). Between 2004 and 2014, world car sales rose at a rate of 3.3 percent annually. Even with the reverses of the Great Recession, this was a more than one-quarter increase from the 2.6 percent rate of the previous decade. If the trend of recent years continues, production will exceed 100 million by 2020.
According to OICA, international vehicle manufacturers organization (Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles), there were 1.2 billion vehicles in the world in 2014, 180 per 1,000 population.
It might be expected that the greatest motorization would have been reached in the United States, the most affluent of the larger nations. That would be partly right, but not the 50 states, rather Puerto Rico is the most intensively motorized geography in the world, with 892 vehicles per 1,000 residents, according to OICA (Puerto Rico is routinely reported separately, for cars and other data . This is surprising, given that Puerto Rico’s median household income was only one-third of the 50 states in 2015, and less than one-half that of 50th ranked Mississippi (Figure 2).
The United States has to settle for fourth position, following Iceland and Luxembourg. Even that may seem high, especially in view of data in The Economist's The World in Figures, which says that the US ranks 36th in cars per 1,000 population. But in the United States, cars aren’t even half the story. In the US, peak sales of traditional passenger cars was reached in 1974 and sales have dropped nearly 40 percent. Consumers have been buying SUVs and pickups instead. Motorization is measured by personal vehicles, not cars. According to OICA, in 2014 86 percent of Western European vehicles were cars, compared to 47 percent in the United States, In fact, in 2016, the top three selling vehicles in the United States were pickups, led by the Ford F Series, which is also the top seller in Canada (photo: Ford F-150 Pickup), where nearly two-thirds of 2016 sales were pickups and SUVs.
Photo: Ford F-150 (2017 model)
World motorization continues to grow strongly. The cars are cleaner , safer and will continue to get more environmentally friendly. The mobility they have facilitated has made an important contribution to the continuing improvements in the quality of life and will continue to do so, despite efforts of governments and planners to discourage their use.
Note: Vehicle types may not be standardized in national reporting and thus caution is required in interpreting this data.
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.