Was Cash For Clunkers A Success?

Far from failing, the CARS Program may have been the highest ROI investment made by the Federal government in years.

The passage of time has brought much ridicule to the Cash For Clunkers program, which was intended to boost auto sales and raise the average fuel efficiency of American vehicles. The data show that the program led to a temporary spike in automobile purchases, prompted by a subsequent decline. This has led most to conclude that the program was a failure, as it did little to jump-start economic recovery.

But what about the other goal? Did Cash For Clunkers raise the average fuel efficiency of the American auto fleet? How much less gasoline have Americans purchased as a result of the program, and does this savings outweigh the program’s cost?

Here are some statistics from the Department of Transportation’s CARS Report to Congress:

  • 677,842 vehicles were turned in under the CARS program
  • $2.85 Billion was paid out in rebates for these vehicles
  • New vehicles purchased had an average MPG of 24.9
  • Old vehicles turned in had an average MPG of 15.7
  • $2.8 Billion in fuel savings based on the early retirement of less efficient vehicles

The report also estimates that roughly half of the sales spurred by the program were incremental sales that would not have occurred otherwise. Edmunds.com performed a more conservative analysis showing that only 125,000 incremental sales occurred as a result of the program.

Using Edmunds’ more conservative 125k number, and an average sales price (after rebate) of roughly $25,000, Cash for Clunkers generated $3.125 Billion in incremental vehicle sales. These incremental sales added directly to US GDP, and this more conservative analysis shows less than half the economic impact of $7 Billion estimated by DOT.

Combining the fuel savings and GDP benefit yields a total benefit to American taxpayers of roughly $6 Billion for a program that cost the government roughly $3 Billion to operate! If only more government programs could fail like this! Even using the more conservative fuel savings calculations provided below, the program would have provided over $5.5 Billion in benefit against a $3B investment. Far from being shut down, the Cash for Clunkers program should have been expanded.

Alternate calculation of fuel savings from junking old vehicles:

0. By junking an old vehicle and taking it off the road, you are permanently increasing the fuel economy of the American vehicle fleet – this is the source of savings for the American economy. Since 100% of marginal US oil consumption is provided by foreign sources, a dollar of oil saved is a dollar added to GDP (since imports actually subtract from GDP as we send money overseas).

1. Assume that the old vehicle would be driven for an additional 50,000 miles over its lifetime (CARS survey respondents said they averaged 10k miles per year on their old vehicles, so even with gradual declines this is reasonable).

2. The old vehicles got an average of 15.7 MPG, requiring roughly 3200 gallons of gasoline over that 50k miles.

3. The new vehicle got an average of 24.9 MPG, requiring 2000 gallons of gasoline over the 50k miles that they replaced.

4. The difference of roughly 1200 gallons of gasoline equates to roughly $3600 per vehicle (assuming $3 per gallon excluding taxes). With roughly 680k vehicles in the program, this equals a fuel cost savings of $2.5 Billion – a slightly more conservative estimate than that computed by DOT.