What Drives Americans’ Preferences for Pickups or Cars?

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While U.S. vehicle fuel economy ratings for passenger cars has improved by 2.7 miles per gallon (mpg) since 1991, ratings for pickup trucks have grown by just 0.3 mpg in the same 25-year period. Passenger car market share reached a peak of about 83% in the United States in 1980 and had dropped to about 62% by 2016.

Light trucks (pickups, vans, minivans and sport utility vehicles (SUVs)/crossovers built on pickup frames) claimed 17% of the U.S. market in 1980, compared with a peak of about 48% in 2004, while passenger car market share had dropped to a multidecade low of around 52%. By 2016, light trucks claimed a market share of about 38% of U.S. vehicle sales.

Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s Sustainable Worldwide Transportation group recently conducted an online survey of 1,230 U.S. vehicle owners and lessees. Of the respondents, 55.7% owned a combination of light trucks and passenger cars, including only light trucks, and 44.3% owned only passenger cars and no light trucks. By vehicle type, 64.8% owned or leased passenger cars and a total of nearly 70% owned or leased a light truck. The count includes people who own more than one vehicle.

The report contains a number of fascinating data points. Here are a few related to light truck owners (or lessees):

  • Nearly 85% report that the vehicle is their primary vehicle.
  • About 69% use their light truck for general transportation and 65% use it to commute to work or school.
  • About 19% of light truck owners/lessees cite “greater general utility” as the primary reason for purchasing a light truck as opposed to a passenger car.
  • Among secondary reasons for owning a light truck, nearly 24% of owners cited greater safety.
  • If gasoline costs should rise sharply, more than a third (36%) would not consider purchasing any other type of light truck vehicle than the one they currently own or lease.

Among passenger car owners the top reason (25%) for owning a car as opposed to a light truck was lower fuel costs. Secondary reasons were a lower initial cost (12%) and prior ownership of this type of car (11%). Some 37% of passenger car owners/lessees would not consider buying any other type of vehicle.

The survey also asked owners/lessees to consider alternative fuels and powertrains. Here’s what the researchers report:

For light-truck owners, interest in considering alternative fuels or powertrains was relatively low, although consideration of non-plug-in hybrid models of their current light trucks was ranked similarly to conventional passenger cars (both about 20%). Similarly, respondents were more interested in considering plug-in hybrid and all-electric (i.e., battery-electric) models of their current light trucks over the same technologies in other light truck models.

For passenger-car owners, interest in considering alternative fuels or powertrains was generally higher than for light truck owners, with willingness to consider all-electric and non-plug-in hybrid models of their currently owned passenger car ranking higher than a full-sized light truck. Furthermore, a plug-in hybrid model of their currently owned 45 passenger car was ranked higher than all three light truck models with alternative fuels or powertrains (i.e., non-plug-in hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric).

Overall, around ten percent of both owner groups would be willing to consider all-electric light trucks or plug-in hybrid light trucks over their currently owned vehicle model. It is worth noting that the lowest ranking for consideration across both owner groups for all vehicle types was for an all-electric light truck by light-truck owners, with around 10% saying they would consider this vehicle type over their currently owned light truck.