Abbott Nicholson PC

Legal Eagles: The team behind the Auto Show

By Joyce Wiswell
The North American International Auto Show is the perfect antidote to the doldrums of winter.

Downtown Detroit was abuzz earlier this week as thousands of journalists and industry insiders checked out the car industry’s latest offerings at the North American International Auto Show – the perfect antidote to the doldrums of winter.

It can be hard to fathom just how much behind-the-scenes effort the Detroit Auto Dealers Association puts into presenting the show, which is the largest annual event by far to grace Cobo Center. Crews have been at work since October installing multimillion-dollar exhibits designed to grab the attention of some 5,100 visiting journalists from more than 60 countries as well as more than 800,000 members of the public who will stream through Jan. 20-28.

Handing the legal details is a year-round undertaking for Robert Weller, a shareholder and board member of the law firm of Abbott Nicholson. Weller has represented the North American International Auto Show for more than 20 years, as well as the Detroit Auto Dealers Association and numerous other vehicle dealership associations and individual dealerships. Four of the firm’s seasoned attorneys devote virtually the majority of their professional time representing dealers, dealerships and dealership associations. The Auto Show comprises a significant amount of that work.

“We assist the NAIAS staff and consultants who negotiate all the contracts with the vendors, sponsors, exhibitors, OEMs, and Cobo Center to be sure all the 'T's' are crossed and the 'I’s' are dotted. The North American International Auto Show is the biggest, the brightest and the best in the world,” Weller said. “Before the show went international more than 25 years ago, the Detroit Auto Show was simply ‘cars on carpet.’ The exhibits have become unbelievably complex and extravagant in recent years. All the other events at Cobo pale in comparison.”

Before a single display is installed or a vehicle could be wheeled onto the floor, Abbott Nicholson helped finalize the agreement with the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, which took over Cobo Center’s operations in 2009. Firm partner John Youngblood recently assisted NAIAS management in putting in place an agreement that ensures the car show remains at Cobo for the next eight years – just as it has for the past several decades.

Weller said he’s seen nothing but positive results since the Regional Authority assumed control of Cobo in a widely publicized collaborative agreement by the Michigan State Legislature, the City of Detroit, and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. This agreement led to the $225 million expansion and improvement of Cobo that helped retain the Auto Show and has drawn other large conventions and shows to the venue.

“The regional authority has been a huge success,” Weller said. “Cobo has become a completely different, user-friendly environment and the improvements are world class and beyond our initial expectations.”

AutoMobili-D offers a behind-the-scenes look at the mobility and technology aspects that will drive the cars of the future.

The Charity Preview

Abbott Nicholson also handled all the legal work associated with the glittering Charity Preview on Friday, Jan. 19, the annual black-tie party that ushers in the public show in style. At $400 per person ($390 of which is tax deductible), more than 13,000 people are expected to show up for the event, which will raise more than $5 million in just one night for eight southeastern Michigan children’s charities. Since 1976, the Charity Preview has amassed some $112 million for children – more than $41 million in the last 10 years alone. 

“I have always known that Southeast Michigan is one of the hardest-working regions in the country. We hustle harder and work harder and then we give back,” said Weller. “Many attendees call the Preview the ‘Adult Prom.’ It’s the ultimate celebration of the industry. It’s amazing, even after all these years, to see so many people contributing so much money for a good cause.”

Since 1976, the Charity Preview has amassed some $112 million for children – more than $41 million in the last 10 years alone.

A peek into the future

For the first time, the public is invited for a behind-the-scenes look at the mobility and technology aspects that will drive the cars of the future at AutoMobili-D, whose debut was so successful last year that it’s back in a big way. Some 170 exhibiting companies from 11 countries around the world will show off their exciting technologies and future innovations for connected, electrified and self-driving vehicles. About 60 of those companies, mostly young startups, will meet with automakers, suppliers and venture capital firms in hopes of striking a deal.

Located in the Cobo Center Atrium and Hall E, AutoMobili-D features the Future Automotive Career Exposition on Jan. 20-21, the first weekend of the Show. This is the only time AutoMobili-D will be open to the general public, so don’t delay.

“Automated vehicles are going to be on the streets sooner than we think,” said Weller. “They say that the day is coming when we will be riding in cars without drivers. I think within five years there will be a very large population of driverless cars and trucks on the road.”

Though he has represented auto dealers and trade groups on legal matters for more than 40 years, Youngblood admitted that the autonomous vehicle technology is quite baffling and that legal matters that arise with the operation of self-driving are far from settled. He’s looking forward to seeing demonstrations of autonomous cars at the show.

“There is a lot of interest in the whole concept of self-driving vehicles,” he said, “and people like me who are intrigued by these developments will get a better feel for how it will work.”

Take your time

Too many car show attendees just don’t devote enough time to seeing all the show has to offer over its nearly 1 million square feet, Weller said.

“A mistake a lot of people make is attending in evening hours and setting aside only two hours to see it all,” he said. “Take a morning or afternoon off work when there are fewer people there, and really let yourself see the show.”

“Make it an event,” suggested Youngblood. “My advice is to come down and spend four of five hours at the show. Then take advantage of some of the fabulous new hotspots we have here in Downtown Detroit.”

Come one, come all

Organizers are going out of their way to make everyone feel welcome at the Show. New this year are two private pods for nursing mothers and, to aid those overwhelmed by too much stimuli, “Sensory Friendly Day” on Jan. 28 when volume and flashing lights will be greatly reduced.

Abbott Nicholson assists the show is in its compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Among accommodations for people with disabilities is allowing them early access to the show beginning at 8 a.m. each day (enter at Hall C) and wheelchairs and motorized scooters on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“The Detroit Auto Dealers Association is thrilled to be presenting our biggest auto show ever,” said Rod Alberts, who heads the group. “And if Abbott Nicholson recommends something, I’d be sure to listen. They know the car industry – and the auto show – backwards and forwards.”

Tickets to the auto show are $14 for adults, and $7 for ages 7-12 and 65 and older. Learn more at

In addition to the automotive industry, Abbott Nicholson specializes in corporate/business law, labor and employment law, commercial/medical defense litigation, real estate law, tax law and trusts and estates. Founded in 1977, the firm is the exclusive east Michigan member of Meritas, an affiliation of 186 independent, full-service business law firms with 7,000 lawyers serving 234 markets in 80 countries. For more information, call 313-566-2500 or visit