The Road Ahead

What Detroit's Big Year Says About Tomorrow's Cars

Truck demand is booming now, but automakers see a fuel-efficient future.

Americans bought more new vehicles in 2016 than ever before: 17.55 million, or roughly one every two seconds.

Seats Taken

The seasonally adjusted annual rate of vehicle sales in the U.S. has continued to climb

Source: Ward's Automotive Group via Bloomberg Intelligence

Note: December SAAR is an estimate.

Bigger rides featured heavily in every sense, fueled by a heady brew of cheaper gasoline, falling unemployment and low financing rates. The market has shifted noticeably from five years ago, when pump prices averaged $3.47 a gallon, $1.40 higher than in 2016:

car truck transition-01

Trucks and SUVs accounted for more than half of sales last year, up from less than 45 percent in 2011, while cars of all shapes and sizes lost market share. 

Factor in the growth of the market overall, though, and the real story emerges. An extra 4.7 million new vehicles drove off dealer lots last year compared to 2011. Look at the make-up of those -- that is, where the growth actually came from -- and the truck-car divide is even starker:

car truck transition share-01

More than three out of every four extra vehicles bought last year compared with 2011 was an SUV or a truck. In absolute terms, just the incremental 2.7 million SUVs purchased in 2016 alone roughly matched the entire market for mid-to-large-sized cars last year.

For auto executives focused on growth, that's a landslide.

But given the long lead times in developing new cars, investment dollars today will be directed toward the anticipated preferences of 2021.

So it is interesting that, although gas guzzlers are riding high now, Ford Motor Co. just announced plans for a hybrid version of the iconic F-150. Judging from the plans of Ford and its major peers to launch a range of volt-guzzlers or sippers, they aren't taking their cues completely from 2016, banner year though it was.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the authors of this story:
    Rani Molla in New York at
    Liam Denning in New York at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mark Gongloff at

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