History Repeating Itself: Gas Prices are Up; So are Truck Sales

Last Updated Nov 9, 2010 7:29 PM EST

There are a lot of valid reasons why the next spike in gas prices, whenever it comes, shouldn't be as big a disaster as it has been in the past. If nothing else, tougher U.S. fuel-economy rules will mandate that the car companies will have highly fuel-efficient cars available, even if they're not big sellers.

However, I can't get past the feeling that consumers are still going to panic all over again when it happens and gas prices take off. Not only that, I'm afraid the auto industry is still going to find a way to get caught with its pants down yet again.

You would think we would have learned by now, after two outright oil embargoes in the early and late 1970s, plus the latest gas panic in 2008. Yet the hot-selling product segments in U.S. auto sales today are mostly in trucks, including big pickups and big SUVs. The comeback in trucks even includes minivans, which looked for a while like they were headed for extinction.

Granted, trucks are coming back from a sharp drop in sales. In addition, the newer trucks and crossovers as they come on line are more fuel-efficient than the vehicles they replaced, but that's not saying much.

Trucks made up 52.8 percent of U.S. auto sales in October, up from 48.5 percent a year ago, according to AutoData. Year to date, trucks made up 49.4 percent of U.S. auto sales, up from 46.9 percent a year ago. By auto industry standards, that's a huge and rapid change in market share.

That's despite the fact that according to AAA, regular gas is closing on $3 per gallon, at a national average of $2.86. Premium gas is $3.14 on average, and diesel is $3.13. Those figures are all higher than a year ago.

The danger to the auto industry is that it could get complacent and neglect the development of small, fuel-efficient vehicles. The domestic car companies now pretty much admit that's what they did for many years before 2008, putting their resources instead into ever-bigger and more powerful trucks.

That complacency is less of an immediate danger for the auto industry today. That's because the decisions affecting the products arriving today, like the Ford (F) Fiesta and the Chevy Cruze were forged when gas prices were spiking a couple of years ago.

The next all-new product generation after the current one - say in five years or so - will demonstrate whether the car companies really got religion with regard to fuel efficiency, or if they're just giving it lip service. In the meantime, stricter federal regulations will force the car companies to pursue fuel efficiency, even if consumers aren't interested.

Related:

  • Not Dead Yet? Falling Gas Prices Revive Interest in Trucks
  • Graphic: howstuffworks.com