By on February 11, 2011

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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7 Comments on “How To Lie With Car Statistics...”

  • avatar

    “what is a lakh?”
    That is a declarative statement I hear the neighbors babble at times, often in reference to a pot of vittles the occupants of a nearby shanty whipped up to feed the mini-herd of humanity existing within.
    For example;
    “I sure lakh them that vittles ma whipped up with that possum Billy Bob drug in from that trip over yonder to grab us’ns some of that speshul-good Arkansas moonshine.”

  • avatar

    From Merriam-Webster:
    motor (n) – any of various power units that develop energy or impart motion: as a : a small compact engine b : internal combustion engine; especially : a gasoline engine c : a rotating machine that transforms electrical energy into mechanical energy

    vehicle (n) – a means of carrying or transporting something <planes, trains, and other vehicles>: as a : motor vehicle b : a piece of mechanized equipment

    motor vehicle (n) – an automotive vehicle not operated on rails; especially : one with rubber tires for use on highways

    Look, they aren’t lying with statistics. The problem is you’re not paying attention. In the US, motorcycles are basically toys. That’s not the case in India, where they’re a basic means of transportation. Both you (i.e. the automotive press in general) and the auto industry need to keep this in mind when dealing with that market. Honda’s paying attention, GM isn’t. Let’s watch what happens with that.

  • avatar

    Interesting to see the numbers bounce around as countries attempt to paint a rosier picture than normal.  India’s instance on using a non-scientific standard term for numbers in what I assume is an international paper is a little disturbing but nothing that really surprises me.  As for the whole “but motorcycles are motor vehicles!” I believe he said they were, they just aren’t automobiles.  That is a distinctly different animal which is a bastardization of auto and mobility.  Counting motorcycles as automobiles is comparing apples to oranges since only a handful of automakers are involved in motorcycle production.  So if Ford and GM aren’t really competing with Honda, Suzuki, and BMW is it really fair to count those as part of the overall total?

  • avatar


    Good point.  Middle class is being able to afford the Chinese Honda knockoff 125 and have the baby on the tank while mom rides sidesaddle with the toddler in her lap.

  • avatar

    It’s so hard to separate apples from oranges when there are plums, peaches and pomegranates in the basket. Not to mention kiwi fruit (is it really a fruit?) and are tomatos (love apples) a fruit or a vegetable? Add in the babble of language translation, and it’s a wonder we can count anything accurately. Wait until we’re dealing with cultures that number things “one”, “two” and “many”. Just don’t call it lying. Truth is in the eye of the definer.

  • avatar

    As Mark Twain said:  “there are only 3 kinds of lies  —  Lies, damned lies, and statistics”

  • avatar


    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…

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