Electric Vehicle Direct Sales vs. Auto Dealer Protectionism — Podcast with James Chen of Rivian (& Formerly Tesla)

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This is the second part of a two-part CleanTech Talk interview with Vice President of Public Policy at Rivian James Chen. A video recording of our one-hour discussion is also now online for CleanTechnica Members, Supporters, Technicians, and Ambassadors to view on YouTube. But if you prefer straight audio, you can listen below (I’m embedding both parts of the interview) or on a large variety of podcast platforms.

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In this portion of the podcast, I asked about legacy automakers previously trying to sell directly to consumers. James pointed out that Ford tried to sell vehicles directly in the 1990s, but couldn’t. But that doesn’t mean they should have another shot in the present or future. James said that Rivian’s view is that any manufacturer producing EVs should be able to sell EVs directly to consumers.

James also pointed out that Canada allows both options — conventional auto dealers as well as automakers selling directly to consumers — and it works fine.

I also asked Rivian’s top dog battling antiquated dealer-protection laws about the argument that “you need dealers for consumer protection.” I couldn’t get the question out without laughing, because the argument is so hilariously insincere, but James took the question seriously nonetheless and had a lot of interesting things to say. He explained in detail the various consumer protections that exist — there are many — to protect auto buyers. The idea that dealers are needed to protect consumers is simply myth — as if you hadn’t figured that out by now.

That doesn’t mean James sees dealers as dead corporations walking. He sees a future for them! Well, some of them. “I think there’s a real opportunity here for franchise dealers to look at their business model and evolve. They don’t have to be the buggy whip manufacturers of the 1900s, or the blacksmiths of the 1900s. They can look at the business model and figure out how to evolve.” He goes on to give an example, Cox Automotive, and what it is doing to progress in various ways.

We also heard a bit from James about his deeper history as an environmental lawyer and “car guy,” and how that mixture ended up leading him to Tesla, and more recently Rivian.

James mentioned Tim Echols and his EV policy leadership in Georgia*, which got me thinking about EV champions in the policy world, leading me to ask him a few questions about that. He mentioned Governor Polis and some of the great stuff he has been doing in Colorado as well as Governor Whitmer’s own style of EV leadership in Michigan. (*See: “Georgia Commissioner Tim Echols Explores Rivian At Georgia State Capitol” and “Joe Biden: A Chance To Save The Day,” by Tim Echols.)

James also talked a bit more about how antiquated, anti–free market state policies regarding auto dealerships have been resolved or improved in certain states.

To close, we talked a bit about EV policy and sales leadership in Europe and China. We also talked about how important it is to the future of the United States economy and its people to not be a laggard in this sector.

Related story: Rivian, Tesla, Auto Dealers, And Backwards State Laws — Part 1

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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