In part because of what Mark Seng of IHS Markit describes as better technology and overall vehicle quality improvements, the average age of U.S. light vehicles in operation is back on the rise.

According to new research from IHS Markit, the average age of U.S. light vehicles in operation has increased again this year to 11.8 years.

For insight into the average age acceleration, just look at the last 17 years. The average age of light vehicles in the U.S. increased by 3.5% from 2002 to 2007. That increase shot up, however, to 12.2% from 2008 to 2013. The average age increase has returned to its more traditional rate over the last five years with a 4% rise during that time.

“The 40%  drop in new-vehicle sales due to the recession created an acceleration in average age like we’ve never seen before,”  said Seng, who is director of the global automotive aftermarket practice at IHS, in a news release. “In the last couple of years, however, average age has returned to its more traditional rate of increase.”

IHS Markit says the overall light vehicle fleet continues to grow, with U.S. light vehicles in operation hitting a record level of more than 278 million. That represents an increase of more than 5.9 million, or 2.2%, since 2018 and also represents one of the U.S. auto industry’s highest annual increases since IHS Markit began tracking vehicles in operation, or VIO, growth. That number is also second only to the 2.3% growth in 2016. 

“The increasing VIO fleet is providing a robust new business pipeline for the aftermarket,” Seng said.  “A larger fleet means more service and repair opportunities in the future.”

IHS Markit’s analysis, for the first time, included a review of various regions around the country. That review showed that light vehicles are not aging consistently across geography or segment.  The Western U.S. includes the oldest light vehicles, at 12.4 years. The Northeast, at 10.9 years, shows the youngest light vehicles, according to the study. 

The study also shows that across regions, the light vehicle fleet is not aging at the same rate. In the West from 2018 to 2019, light vehicles increased 1.5%. But they increased by only 0.4% in the Midwest. 

The state with the oldest average age of light vehicles? Montana, with an average of 16.6 years. The youngest? Vermont, with an average light vehicle age of 9.9 years.

The popularity of light trucks, including CUVs and SUVs, has grown, and because of that, U.S. vehicle age is on the rise at different rates across vehicle segments. The average age of passenger cars increased 2.2% from 2018-2019. But during that time, light trucks aged at a rate of just 0.1%

But IHS Markit says as the fleet ages, the shift in vehicles in operation creates new opportunities. One of those opportunities is for the automotive aftermarket, according to the company.

The shift among various age categories is important to those who manage inventories of required parts and plan for sales and service activity accordingly, IHS Markit said. For that reason, those groups continue to closely monitor that measure.

IHS Markit also indicated that the shifting dynamic of the age of vehicles in operation means that from 2018 to 2023, the volumes of new- to 5-year-old vehicles will grow 2%, and during that same period, vehicles in the 6- to 11-year-old range will grow 27%. The company says that because it points to a growing repair “sweet spot” – or growth in the vehicles which drive the most repair opportunities, that is a positive trend for the independent aftermarket. However, 12- to 15-year-old vehicles will see a 27% decline over that time, the company said.

“While the decrease in light vehicles 12 to 15 years of age looks alarming, it relates to the drop in sales due to the recession,” Seng said. “There is simply a lack of 2008- and 2009-model-year vehicles due to the lower sales numbers during that timeframe. Even the model years from early in the recovery are lower in number. This disruption simply needs time to work its way through the fleet.”

IHS Markit sees a positive trend for the aftermarket repair industry with the oldest light vehicles on the road. Those older cars and light trucks are seeing fast growth, as vehicles 16 years and older are expected to see 22% growth 2018-2023. In 2023, those vehicles are projected to reach 84 million units. However, in 2002, fewer than 35 million 16-plus year old vehicles were on the road.

For automotive aftermarket companies focused on repairing the vehicles on the road today, and into the future, this aging fleet is a great trend, according to IHS Markit. But it will be important for the industry to understand the impact that trend will have on those service opportunities. Instead of a sale to the first or second owner of the vehicle, it might be a third, fourth or fifth owner. 

IHS Markit sees branding and pricing strategies for “good, better and best” products and services increasing in importance as the consumers consider the age of the vehicle in deciding how much they are willing to pay for a needed repair.