Cash for Clunkers – Visualization and Analysis


Cash for Clunkers: A Dynamic Map of the Cash Allowance Rebate Systems (CARS)

Some Background on the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS)

From the official July 27, 2009 press release – “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also released the final eligibility requirements to participate in the program.  Under the CARS program, consumers receive a $3,500 or $4,500 discount from a car dealer when they trade in their old vehicle and purchase or lease a new, qualifying vehicle. In order to be eligible for the program, the trade-in passenger vehicle must: be manufactured less than 25 years before the date it is traded in; have a combined city/highway fuel economy of 18 miles per gallon or less; be in drivable condition; and be continuously insured and registered to the same owner for the full year before the trade-in. Transactions must be made between now [July 27, 2009] and November 1, 2009 or until the money runs out.”

On August 6, 2009, Congress extended the program adding $2 billion dollars to the program’s initial allocation. For those interested in background, feel free to read the CNN report on the program extension.

On August 13, 2009, the Secretary offered this press release noting “[T]he Department of Transportation today clarified that consumers who want to purchase new vehicles not yet on dealer lots can still be eligible for the CARS program. Dealers and consumers who have reached a valid purchase and sale agreement on a vehicle already in the production pipeline will be able to work with the manufacturer to receive the documentation needed to qualify for the program.”

On August 20, 2009, the Secretary announced the program would end on August 24, 2009 at 8pm EST.  While this remained the deadline for sales, dealers were provided a small extension to file paperwork ( Noon on August 25, 2009). For those interested, all other press releases are available here.

The Cars.gov DataSet

The full data set is available for download here.  From the Cars.gov website “these reports contain the transaction level information entered by participating dealers for the 677,081 CARS transactions that were paid or approved for payment as of Friday, October 16, 2009 at 3:00PM EDT for a total of $2,850,162,500. Please note that confidential financial or commercial information and consumer information protected under the DOT privacy policy has been redacted.” The official cars.gov website offers additional caveats on its note to analysts.  One important thing to note, there is a statutory exemption which allowed transactions to occur pursuant to an amended rule after the August 24, 2009 termination date.  Here is the relevant language of the amended rule:

“To qualify for the exception process, a dealer must have been prevented from submitting an application for reimbursement due to a hardship caused by the agency. Specifically, a dealer may request an exception if the dealer was locked out of the CARS system, contacted NHTSA for a password reset prior to the announced deadline, but did not receive a password reset. A dealer also may request an exception if its timely transaction was rejected by the CARS system due to a duplicate State identification number, trade-in vehicle VIN, or new vehicle VIN that was never used for a submitted  CARS transaction, if the dealer contacted NHTSA prior to the announced deadline to resolve the issue but did not receive a resolution. Finally, a dealer may seek an exception if it was prevented from submitting a transaction by the announced deadline due to another hardship attributable to NHTSA’s action or inaction, upon submission of proof and justification satisfactory to the Administrator.”

For those who have downloaded the full set, the above passage explains why there exist transaction data which fall outside of the general CARS program window.

Dynamic Visualization of the Spatial Distribution of Sales

Each time step of the animation represents a day for which there exists data in the CARS official dataset. While the program officially started on July 27, 2009, the dataset contains both transactions undertaken during the pilot program as well as transactions undertaken pursuant the exemption process described above. Thus, the movie begins with the first unit of observation on July 1, 2009 and terminates with the final transaction on October 24, 2009.  Similar to a flip book, the movie is generated by threading together each daily time slice.

The Size and Color of Each Circle

Each circle represents a zip code in which one or more participating dealerships is located.  The radius of a given circle is function of the number of CARS related sales in a given zip code as of the date in question. In each day, the circle is colored if there is at least one sale in the current period while the circle is resized based upon the number of sales in the given period.

In the later days of the data window, particular those after official August 25 termination of the program, the daily sales are fairly negligible. However, as outlined in the dataset description above, each participating institution who qualified for the exemption was allowed to submit transactions beyond official program termination date. Notice the cumulative percentage of sales reach nearly all total sales by August 25th.  Virtually all sales occur during the official July 27, 2009August 24, 2009 window. Thus, while these the stragglers caused certain circles to remain illuminated the size of circles is essentially fixed after August 24, 2009.

Some Things to Notice in the Visualization

In the lower left corner of the video, you will notice two charts.  The chart on the left tracks the contribution to total sales for the given day.  The chart on the right represent the cumulative percentage of sales to date under the program. Not surprisingly, most of the transactions under the CARS program take place between July 27, 2009 – August 24, 2009 time window.

Within this window, the daily sales feature a variety of interesting trends. During each Sunday of the program (i.e. August 2nd, August 9th, August 16th & August 23rd) sales were significantly diminished.  Not surprisingly, the end of week and early weekend sales tend to be the strongest.

In the very early days of the program, there were a variety of media reports (e.g. here, here, here) highlighting the quickly dimishing resources under the program. Obviously, it is difficult to determine the underlying demand for the program. However, given the extent of the acceleration, it appears these reports contributed to the rapid depletion of the initial 1 billion dollars allocated under the program.  A similar but less pronounced form of herding also accompanied the last days of the CARS program.

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