DETROIT – Despite becoming the world’s biggest auto market, China will continue to trail the U.S.  in annual driving miles. 

That’s what futurist Peter Phleps says during a keynote speech on mobility and future markets at the SAE World Congress here.

“The U.S. has built up a great car culture,” he says. “There is no country in the world where cars are used more.”

That No.1 road-warrior status is not expected to change in coming years.

“I don’t think any country will match the U.S. in vehicle use,” says Phleps, senior researcher for the BMW Group’s Institute for Mobility Research. “Some of us overestimate the potential growth of countries like China,”

From 2005 to 2013, light-vehicle sales increased 278.5% in China, 120.6% in Brazil and 145.9% in India, according to WardsAuto data. In contrast, U.S. auto sales dropped 8.3% during that 8-year stretch.

In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. in vehicle sales. Last year, China sales were 20.7 million units compared with 15.5 million in the U.S. Sales in Brazil and India were 3.5 million and 3 million, respectively.

Despite India emerging as an automotive market, “public transportation will play a greater role” there because of its high population density, Phleps says.

In China, new government regulations discourage car use in major cities, he adds.

As far as frequency of vehicle use, “India and China are heading more towards Japan and Germany, and Brazil is becoming more like Australia.”

U.S. drivers use their vehicles twice as much as counterparts in Germany and three times as much as motorists in Japan, he says.

Vehicle use peaked in the U.S. in 2007, then decreased during the recession years of 2008 and 2009. Since then, collective travel miles have increased only slightly, hovering around 3 trillion a year.  

“We don’t see fast growth again, but rather growth as more of a side development,” Phleps says. “The period of strong growth is over.”

He says that’s in part because Generation Y shows “increasingly multi-modal travel behavior,” meaning young people are more likely than their elders to use public transportation, bicycles and car-sharing services to get around.

Phleps describes himself as an optimist when it comes to automotive-industry opportunities of the future, even though they may take different forms, such as car sharing and self-driving vehicles.

He says he and his fellow mobility researchers are not fortune tellers. “No one is able to predict the future. But we can invest in how we think the future might develop by using a lot of scenario-thinking.”

During an audience Q&A, Phleps is asked if future China land development might resemble U.S. suburbia, therefore increasing commuter travel and overall miles driven.

“Hopefully, I can give you an answer on that in a couple of months, but not today,” he says. 

sfinlay@wardsauto.com