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Today in Energy

May 29, 2020

The recent decline in light-duty vehicle sales has affected cars more than light trucks

U.S. motor vehicle retail sales
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

The 729,000 vehicles sold in the United States in April 2020 amounted to the lowest total since early 2010. The seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of light-duty vehicle sales in April is the lowest in the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data series that dates back to 1976. Car sales have fallen by a larger percentage than light truck sales: in April, car sales were down 59% from the previous April, and light truck sales were down 42%. These changes in the makeup of vehicle sales have implications for fuel economy because cars tend to use less fuel per mile traveled than light trucks.

April 2020 was the first full month of widespread shutdowns following the stay-at-home orders and closure of nonessential businesses in an effort to mitigate the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Much like the rest of the economy, car manufacturing facilities saw significant disruptions to their operations. According to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, 43 out of 44 vehicle production facilities in the United States were shut down as of April 29.

All vehicle size groups experienced double-digit declines in year-over-year sales in both March and April. Pickups experienced the smallest drop, likely because of record-high incentives per unit. Sales for all types of cars were down at least 50% in April 2020 relative to April 2019.

light-duty vehicle sales market shares by vehicle type
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Wards Intelligence

For several years, cars and trucks had similar market shares, each accounting for about half of light-duty vehicle sales. Since 2014, however, the popularity of crossover-utility vehicles has resulted in an increasing market share for light trucks. In 2019, light trucks accounted for 72% of light-duty vehicle sales. In April 2020, light trucks accounted for 77% of sales.

Certain types of powertrains have been disproportionately affected by the recent drop in sales. Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) sales decreased by the largest percentage, and diesel vehicles were least affected. Sales of fully electric vehicles (EV), which accounted for 1.5% of total U.S. light-duty vehicle sales in March, were sustained by an increase in deliveries of Tesla’s Model S and Model X. Tesla alone accounted for 81% and 77% of U.S. EV sales in March 2020 and April 2020, respectively. However, in April, the year-over-year drop in EV sales was larger than all powertrains other than PHEVs.

light-duty vehicle sales market shares by powertrain
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Wards Intelligence

The shifts in market share from cars to light trucks and from alternative to conventional powertrains likely reduced the overall sales-weighted average fuel economy of light-duty vehicles. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) estimates of the sales-weighted average fuel economies of 33.9 miles per gallon (mpg) in March and 33.6 mpg in April are slightly lower than they would be if market shares had remained the same as in 2019.

Principal contributor: Michael Dwyer