AutoNation CEO: Michigan anti-Tesla law unnecessary

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

The leader of the largest automotive retailer in America views Michigan's so-called "anti-Tesla bill" signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder last month as "unnecessary protectionism."

AutoNation Inc. Chairman and CEO Mike Jackson said there aren't any existing Tesla Motors Inc. franchises to protect. He said it's CEO Elon Musk's right to choose how he wants to sell cars.

"If Elon Musk wants to make a mistake and go with an inefficient distribution system, that's his right as an American," he said Thursday during a Detroit Economic Club luncheon in Dearborn. "Let him do it. I'm not afraid … my phone will ring someday when he really wants to sell some cars."

The law closed a loophole that the California-based electric vehicle manufacturer has used in other states to maintain company-owned retail stores, bypassing the dealership route. Snyder said the bill clarified an existing law, while Tesla argued that Michigan would have allowed them to sell directly in the state.

Jackson, whose 220-plus stores sell 500,000 vehicles annually, also took a jab at Tesla for lobbying against government regulations.

"There's a certain irony here that as Elon Musk complains about government intervention and government protectionism, he wouldn't exist without the government," he said, mentioning state and federal incentives for the company and electric vehicles.

Tesla wasn't the only thing in Jackson's cross-hairs during the meeting. The charismatic former president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA discussed his views on everything from fracking and the Obama administration, to automakers' ongoing recall crisis, which he called a "black eye" for the industry.

Jackson, when speaking to reporters after the meeting, specifically mentioned GM's delayed ignition switch recall of 2.6 million vehicles that have been linked to at least 30 deaths — and the mass recall of millions of vehicles with faulty Takata air bags — as especially detrimental.

"It's sinking into the American's conscience that the industry does not have a coherent plan to care for their safety," he said. "A cost will come for that sooner or later … but now's the time to speak up and say, 'We need a better solution.' "

Jackson reluctantly said more government intervention is needed when it comes to recalls, particularly in circumstances when a same component is across multiple manufacturers.

Analysts and government officials have agreed that National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government's vehicle safety watchdog, needs to have more power or work closer with automakers.

More optimistically, Jackson said he sees auto sales hitting 17 million vehicles next year, and the "renaissance" of the American auto industry continuing.

"We have the most exciting, fascinating products coming from Detroit ever," he said. "They are world-class."

(313) 222-2504