How To Lie With Car Statistics

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
how to lie with car statistics

Car sales in India powered ahead in January. India added 184,332 passenger cars to its roads, up 26.3 percent. According to the Hindustan Times, this was “the highest ever in a month eclipsing the previous record set only three months ago.” Allow me to use this opportunity for a small lecture on the use and abuse of auto industry statistics, in Asia, and around the world.

Whenever you see a sales number reported, make sure that you know what it is about. Have a look at this graph, also from the Hindustan Times. It looks spiffy. But it is an egregious example of what can go wrong.

The headline says: “ With 13.2 lakh vehicles, domestic auto sales were 19% up.” God help us.

First of, what is a lakh? As India gets important, it will be a term we will see often, so we better familiarize us with it. A lakh in India is 100,000.

Now 13.2 lakh vehicles would be 1.32 million. Did India buy 1.32 million autos in January? No way. India bought some 184,000 cars in January, and 1.32 million vehicles. How’s that? The Indians insist on counting three and two-wheelers as motor vehicles. This confuses everybody.

Here at TTAC, we try to follow the OICA model and count the total of “cars” and “commercial vehicles”.

OICA defines a motor vehicle as something that has ”at least four wheels, used for the transport of passengers, and comprising no more than eight seats in addition to the driver’s seat.” OICA and we add “commercial vehicles” to that count, because there is no clear worldwide definition of when a truck is “commercial” and when not. If we would eliminate all the “trucks” from the U.S. count for instance, America would end up having half the cars it has. (Trust me, there are statistics out there that say just that.)

If you check the graph, you see:

184,332 passenger cars, up 26.28 percent

233,994 passenger vehicles, up 24.68 percent

60,753 commercial vehicles, up 12.5 percent

That would amount, if there is no double counting, to 479,079 units as per our and OICA’s definition sold in January in India.

But there is double counting: According to the Indian industry association SIAM, “passenger vehicles” are the total of passenger cars, utility vehicles and multi-purpose vehicles (i.e. cars, SUVs and MPVs). Therefore, the actual total is 294,747. Phew!

When you read sentences like “Two-wheeler sales, which constitute almost 75 percent of total automobile sales in the country…” then it’s time to pause and to check a little more.

You think that’s just an Indian confusion? Be prepared to be surprised. Confusion reigns all over the world, and on this side of the pond as well.

The official 2010 sales number for China, according to the China’s Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) is 18,061,900. This is the total of all motor vehicles according to OICA, no two- or three-wheelers included.

Many media outlets, such as the Detroit News, insist that “About 13.8 million vehicles were sold in 2010 in China compared with 11.6 million in the United States.” They didn’t say “cars”. They said “vehicles.” Not even motor vehicles. Sorry, wrong number. Nevertheless, that erroneous number is making the rounds.

There were 13.76 million “passenger cars” sold in China plus more than 4 million so called “commercial vehicles”. The total of motor vehicles sold was 18,061,900.

Also, since we are nitpicking, the size of the automotive industry of a country is (as per OICA) measured by production, not by sales. That can have dramatic impact for countries such as Japan, Korea, or Germany which have a high rate of export.

In China, the impact of exports is negligible. Here is the official word on the topic, straight from China’s CAAM:

“From January to December this year, China automobile production reached 18,264,700 units, an increase of 32.44% compared with the same period of last year; Production of passenger cars was 13,897,100 units, up 33.83 percent year on year; the output of commercial vehicle was 4,367,600 units, increased by 28.19% compared with the same period of last year.”

Let’s recap:

Be sure what you count: Cars? Trucks? Motorcycles? Trikes? The worldwide accepted benchmark used for the ranking of manufacturers and countries is all motor vehicles with 4 wheels or more that don’t run on rails.

Are you counting sales or production? Both have their place, but they need to be kept apart. The worldwide accepted benchmark used for the ranking of manufacturers and countries is production.

When you really want to know, go straight to the source. Numbers are misreported at an alarming rate.

Class dismissed!

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2 of 7 comments
  • Dusterdude Dusterdude on Feb 11, 2011

    As Mark Twain said: "there are only 3 kinds of lies -- Lies, damned lies, and statistics"

  • Zeus01 Zeus01 on Feb 12, 2011

    As Mark Twain said: “there are only 3 kinds of lies – Lies, damned lies, and statistics” Never mind statistics--- the most blatant lies are those of omission. For example, look no further than the dealer lots for most manufacturers in any city in North America. Most dealer advertising on the vehicles closest to the street read to the effect of low monthly payments (or lately, WEEKLY payments, in order to show a lower price figure up front, hoping the gullible peasants won't notice), but neglect to mention that said payments drag on for upwards of six years(!) and that they do not include taxes, dealer prep, freight, "admin" fees or whatever else the dealer can dream up to tack onto the back end. Some have even been known to sweeten the deal by showing an even lower payment--- but neglect to tell the unwary customer that to do this the paperwork, with deft sleight-of-hand, now reads "LEASE" rather than "purchase." Just once I'd like to see the out-the-door price advertised on a new car at a dealership. No games, no B.S., No "gotchas." Too bad this won't happen without legislation...

  • Kat Laneaux What's the benefits of this as opposed to the Ford or Nissan. Will the mileage be better than the 19 city, 24 hwy? Will it cost less than the average of $60,000? Will it be a hybrid?
  • Johnster Minor quibble. The down-sized full-sized 1980-only Continental (which was available with Town Car and Town Coupe trims) gave up its name in 1981 and became the Town Car. The name "Town Coupe" was never used after the 1980 model year. The 1981 Lincoln Town Car was available with a 2-door body style, but the 2-door Lincoln Town Car was discontinued and not offered for the 1982 model year and never returned to the Lincoln lineup.
  • Zipper69 Some discreet dwebadging and this will pass for a $95k Lucid Air...
  • Zipper69 Does it REALLY have to be a four door?Surely a truly compact vehicle could stick with the half-door access with jump seats for short term passengers.
  • ToolGuy See kids, you can keep your old car in good condition.