This may not be the year we expected, but 2020 is shaping up to be a landmark one.
It officially ended an era, closing a decade of exceptional growth for the North American automotive industry, both in terms of vehicle sales and investment in manufacturing.
It also marks the start of a new era, one in which electric vehicles finally got some traction, even as the COVID-19 pandemic shook the industry at its core.
"(We are) right in the midst of this formative stage—and it's really exciting because we don't know which technologies are going to come out on top," Bernard Swiecki, director of the Automotive Communities Partnership at the Center for Automotive Research, said during a plenary presentation that closed out this year's International Tire Exhibition & Conference.
One thing, though, is certain: Change is ahead. And that change is going to start with vehicle sales.
Swiekci said the hit absorbed by the auto industry this year is dynamically illustrated in the seasonally adjusted annual rate, which plummeted as COVID-19 forced the closure of production and retail locations globally.
In North America last year, light vehicle sales were close to 17.5 million.
But by April 2020, the SAAR dropped to 8.5 million before rebounding to about 14 million in July.
"Typically, July is a little bit slower," Swiecki said. "It's a little bit of a lull in the middle of the summertime, so we are closer to a typical July by far than we were at any point since February. So that does suggest a return to normalcy, at least so far in this recovery."
Through July, the total market was down about 22 percent, compared to the same time last year. That translates to a loss of 2 million vehicle sales across all segments.
For years, sales of cars—and specifically sedans—have floundered, and the COVID-19 shutdowns look to have exacerbated that trend, Swiecki said. Through July, car sales were down by 34.5 percent, while truck sales slipped about 16.5 percent.