A lot has happened since 2009. President Obama was re-elected. The Arab Spring saw popular uprisings overthrow dictators across the Middle East and North Africa. General Motors declared and subsequently emerged from bankruptcy. Fiat bought Chrysler. And the Cash for Clunkers program came and went.
CARS set out to kill two birds with one stone: jumpstart slow automobile sales and get a large number of older cars off the road.
That's right, it's been five years since the federal government launched the Car Allowance Rebate System – known as CARS for short, or more popularly as Cash for Clunkers. The program set out to kill two birds with one proverbial stone: jumpstart slow automobile sales across the country on the one hand, and get a large number of older (and less environmentally friendly) cars off the road. Identifying both problems and a single way to solve them, the government offered financial incentives (cash) for drivers to trade-in their old cars (clunkers) in favor of new ones, following the lead set by similar scrappage programs that had taken place in other countries around the world.
Even with a moribund economy, buyers jumped at the opportunity, and in less than a month, the entire $1 billion allotted by Congress to the program had been used up. So legislators approved an additional $2 billion, which ran out before the end of August 2009 – two months ahead of schedule.
The question that lingers five years later is whether the program was actually a success. Proponents point to the rapid rate at which customers took advantage of the program as a sign of its success, providing a boost in sales to automakers and dealers across the country. The Department of Transportation also reported that the new vehicles acquired averaged over 60-percent better fuel economy than the ones that were traded in, all the while giving a shot of adrenaline to Detroit's automakers.
Critics, however, debate the veracity of those claims and paint a different picture. The program's detractors claim that the increased sales promoted by the program were not created out of nowhere, they merely pulled ahead future sales that would've taken place anyhow, resulting in a zero net gain at the cost of $3 billion to the taxpayer. Implementing the program also required the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to take on thousands of additional employees to process the applications for reimbursement and necessitated the government setting up the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System just to keep track of it all.
Meanwhile, detractors point out, it was not American automakers but Japanese ones like Toyota, Honda and Nissan that brought in the lion's share of new car sales from the program (while American cars were ineligible under Japan's own scrappage program). The initiative is also said to have had the unfortunate side-effect of raising prices on used cars (which only made things harder on those who couldn't afford new ones during difficult financial times), and reduced the number of old cars being donated to charities that depended on them.
As for the improvement in fuel economy, critics claim that drivers are likely to drive their newly fuel-efficient cars more (canceling out any environmental benefit of their improved economy), also arguing that the environmental impact of manufacturing and shipping the new cars bought hadn't been taken into account. Further, they note that many large SUVs and crossovers qualified for the program even though they didn't meet the 20-mpg threshold for eligibility.
Whether the program, now five years in hindsight, could ultimately be viewed as a success or not, one thing's for sure: it was certainly expensive.