Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Fascinating Discussion of "Vehicle Miles Traveled" (VMT), Implications for the Auto Industry and Implications for Automotive Logistics

It is so interesting that the human mind almost always takes previous history and subconsciously projects it out into the future.  It is a real danger when conducting business analysis.  For example, I have always said to those who say GDP is the best indicator concerning transportation volumes that they should not assume a 1% move in GDP 20 years ago is the same as today.  Why? It is because the make up of GDP is not nearly as "freight intensive" now as it was 20 years ago.  Finance, services, health care etc make up a lot more of the GDP now than does industrial production which is the real mover of freight volumes. 

In reading this article concerning Vehicle Miles Traveled - VMT (for automobiles) I am fascinated by the same type of scenario.  We all think that auto sales will move in roughly the same proportions as it has in the past with GDP.  However, what we really need to be looking at is whether driving behaviors are remaining constant.  Once could easily envision an economy growing dramatically yet VMT actually going down which would put a damper or even downward pressure on automobile sales relative to the economy in general.  Here are some key factors:
  • Movement to cities - Less number of miles traveled as people walk and/or use public transportation.
  • Smaller households - As families shrink the need for the infamous "third and fourth car" shrinks as well. 
  • Move to "shared" transportation  - A fascinating development is the growth of people "crowdsourcing" and borrowing each other's items.  A car stays still for a vast majority of the time it is owned and as people share their assets more, less cars get purchased. 
And, the chart below shows some of this happening:

In the end, it is very possible we could have a growing and robust economy yet have far fewer automobiles on the road.  This, of course, has big implications for transportation in the long run because automotive manufacturing consumes a lot of truck and intermodal transportation miles. 

This will clearly not happen overnight and you may say it won't happen in your working lifetime however there is a good chance it will happen and is already started to happen. One thing I have learned about these types of trends (call them "Mega-trends") is they aren't noticed until it is too late and they generally go a lot faster than you expect. 

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