Big Auto vs. The Innovator

Yesterday Michigan Governor Rick Snyder passed Michigan House Bill 5606 (a tip of the hat to a longtime friend and fellow “car brat” who brought the story to my attention), which prevents electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors Inc. from selling vehicles in the state. Snyder, in a signing letter to the Michigan House of Representatives, says that this isn’t really news–the bill just clarifies that rather than using its own franchised network of dealerships, car manufacturers can sell through any franchise. Tesla sells directly to consumers, so sales of Tesla were always illegal in Michigan. Tesla had some damning words to say about the bill:

Not content with enshrining their ability to charge consumers dubious fees, on the last day of the legislative session, the dealers managed to make a last-minute change to the bill in an attempt to cement their broader retail monopoly. Using a procedure that prevented legislators and the public at large from knowing what was happening or allowing debate, Senator Joe Hune added new language in an attempt to lock Tesla out of the state,” Tesla said. “The dealers seek to force Tesla, a company that has never had a franchise dealership, into a body of law solely intended to govern the relationship between a manufacturer and its associated dealers. In so doing, they create an effective prohibition against Tesla opening a store in Michigan.

Either way, General Motors Co. has gone on record as a supporter of the bill, which, in the company’s view, levels the playing field by either forcing Tesla to sell through dealers or bow out of Michigan. Tesla seems committed to its direct-to-consumer strategy, so it looks like Tesla won’t be selling in the Great Lakes State any time soon.

I can’t help but draw parallels between this incident and another time that Big Auto has gone toe-to-toe against an innovator:

TuckerMoviePosterTucker: The Man and His Dream, the 1988 biographical movie, is based on the story of Preston Tucker’s attempt to change the auto industry in the 1940s. His “car of tomorrow”, the Tucker 48, featured several safety innovations, such as a shatterproof glass windshield, roll bar and seatbelts (The Tucker 48 was the first production car to include a seatbelt). In Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the story, the Big Three (Ford, GM and Chrysler) feared competition from the upstart Tucker as well as innovations like seatbelts that implied, in Detroit’s mind, that cars aren’t safe. Tucker’s dream was squashed when he and several other Tucker Corp. executives were indicted for mail fraud, conspiracy to defraud and SEC violations. They were eventually found not guilty, but Tucker Corp. fell apart and Tucker’s dream was dead.

Thinking about U.S./Big Auto vs. Tucker/Tesla brought my thoughts to all the nonbank competition out there today–and whether those nonbank competitors will remain immune from financial regulation for much longer. Of course, the picture in the bank space is significantly more complicated than in the auto industry, with big banks, community banks, credit unions, Big Tech like Google and Apple and small fintech startups all jostling for position.

And as they dig themselves further into the banking space, I think Big Tech and and the smaller fintech firms will come closer and closer to being under the thumb of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that enjoys freer reign than other regulators and relishes its role as the consumers’ protector. At least one law professor believes that Apple Pay already crossed the line. The more financial products and services that ‘Big Tech’ offers, the more they’ll come under the eye of Cordray. If that happens, will the CFPB mark the end of fintech innovation in the U.S.?

4Q14-Cover*If you’re interested in reading about the threat that technology companies pose to traditional banks, check out the latest issue of Bank Director magazine, featuring Jack Milligan’s cover story, “Sizing Up the Nonbank Threat”.

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