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Description of the Global Motor Vehicle Fleet

Gregory Launay, translation by Audrey Brousseau - Last update: August 9th, 2012


So as to weigh up the implications of the automobile on global energy consumption and climate, the current fleet has to be qualified.


What are we talking about?

Let’s first define what we call the automobile. This term has to be understood as “manufactured good that gets car manufacturers to make profits”, and it includes two types of vehicles:

  • Passenger cars (mine, yours if you have one)
  • Light commercial vehicles (your plumber’s, your truck farmer’s, the one you rent when you’re moving in or out)

Light commercial vehicles must be taken into account as a proper category because they are the most commonly sold in the United States to…private individuals (pick-up trucks for example). General goods transportation vehicles (all heavyweight categories) and collective transportation vehicles (buses and coaches) are not included.


Number of cars in circulation

Different estimations of the global fleet can be found in various studies. Here is the population equipment rate (number of vehicles per 1000 inhabitants) in EU countries and countries that represent the main markets.

Vehicles equipment rate per 1000 inhabitants - Sources: ACEA, 2006 figures

Here is what can be observed:

  • The United States shows nearly one vehicle per inhabitant (776 per 1000)
  • China’s equipment rate remains very low (26 per 1000)
  • South Korea, considered as a new developed country, has not finished its equipment process (237 per 1000)
  • There are significant disparities between countries of similar wealth (about 800 per 1000 in the United states and 540 in Japan)

It seems logical that beyond wealth, culture and geography have a significant impact on equipment. Transport is not comprehended the same way whether there are 30 or 300 inhabitants per km2. Town planning and the implications of transport and subsequent energy consumption are obviously not the same…

Let’s go back to our topic. A relevant estimation of the vehicle fleet on various markets can be inferred from those figures:

Estimation of the main vehicle fleet in circulation - Sources: ACEA; Eurostat, synthesis from the author, 2006

The global fleet counts a total of over 900 million vehicles and it is probably near one billion with roughly 700 million private vehicles and 300 million light commercial vehicles.

French figures show a 38 million-fleet with 30 million passenger cars and 8 million light commercial vehicles.

Annual growth of this vehicle fleet

It’s a well-known fact that new sales reach about 70 million a year (and over 2.4 billion in total, see here). But in order to know the fleet growth pace, the number of cars leaving the fleet each year has to be taken into account. And that is a little more intricate.

In mature markets (Western Europe, Japan, United States) where fleet growth sustains a very slow pace, the number of scrapped cars draws close to that of new sales, that is to say 5% of the fleet. Here are the U.S figures:

New sales and scrapped cars in the United States from 1991 to 2009 – Source: National Automobile Dealers Association, January 2010

So 12 million vehicles leave the U.S fleet each year (5% of the 250 million-fleet). In the European Union, this figure would be between 8 and 9 million vehicles (figures from the European Commission), compared to 16 to 18 million sales. As regard France, the ADEME produces 1.5 million (2 million for Arcelor) for about 2 million sales.

About 35 million vehicles leave the global fleet (no official figures) each year, that is to say about half the annual production. That seems to be a sensible rate. The global fleet thus sustains a growth of 30 to 40 million vehicles a year.


Average consumption of the vehicle fleet

Here are the figures from the French Committee of Automobile Manufacturers (in liters of gasoline equivalent):

Evolution of average private vehicle consumption - Source: CCFA

This graph shows the U.S discrepancy on a global scale, and thus the benefits of taxes! The average global consumption is 9 liters per 100 kms (about 225 grams of CO2 per km). The United States is the dirty man with 11 liters per 100 km (260 grams of CO2 per km). France maintains its position on the top list with an average consumption of 7 liters per 100 kms (175 grams of CO2 per km).

Those figures should be criticized on two grounds:

  • They only take passenger cars into account and not light commercial vehicles (like American pick-up trucks)
  • They stop in 2002. Even though the graphs seem to show stagnation, the consumption of new cars has been significantly shrinking since 2005.

In short, those figures can be criticized and yet they show a very sensible outline. Some more up-to-date figures provided by the International Energy Agency confirm this order of magnitude.

Average CO2 emissions per km of private vehicles on the main markets in 2007 – Source: IEA, October 2009

The average global emission of private vehicles is 205 grams of CO2 per km (a little over 8 liters per 100 kms). What was used as an average CO2 emission of 225 grams per km from passenger cars and light commercial vehicles is perfectly realistic.


Average distance covered

Here are the figures that can be found on the Eurostat database:

Annual average distance covered by a vehicle - Source: Eurostat, NHTS (National Household Travel Survey), 2004

Once again we can observe a sharp discrepancy between the United States and Japan, two economically similar and yet culturally and geographically different countries. The average distance is about 15000 km a year (red line).


The average global vehicle

Of course there are as many different cars as manufacturers think it’s necessary to comply with “their customers’” needs. Yet, we may gather those data in one vehicle that would have the following characteristics:

  • consumption: 9 L / 100 km (liter of gasoline equivalent)
  • CO2 emission: 225 g / km
  • distance covered each year: 15.000 km
  • number of vehicles worlwide:

This is just a way to figure out what nowadays fleet is, to make calculations simpler and to throw light on various ways of thinking.


How much energy to move?

Let’s keep this average vehicle in mind and finish this outline with a short calculation. One liter of gasoline contains 10 kWh (read kilowatt hour), which is the equivalent of a hundred 100 watt-light bulbs lit for an hour.

My average vehicle that consumes 9 liters per 100 kms thus needs 0,09 liters, that is to say 0,9 kWh to cover one kilometer. As a consequence, 900 Wh have to be produced in average to cover one kilometer on earth. Considering the vehicle efficiency (just below 20 %, let’s take 18 %) the actual energy that is used is 160 Wh per kilometer. Here is a good reference to estimate the performances of alternative technologies.