AutoNation just kicked the can.
Last year, the largest U.S. auto dealership group staked out a bold and admirable position on recalls, pledging to go beyond federal law and not sell new or used vehicles with pending recalls. It did quite a bit of moralizing on the issue, too. CEO Mike Jackson said then that any sale of an unrepaired vehicle "is not a responsible solution. You're just kicking the can to somebody else."
Turns out, AutoNation couldn't live up to its promise. Rather than wait months for replacement parts, it is auctioning some vehicles with pending recalls. AutoNation may place big warning stickers on the cars to be auctioned, but there's nothing stopping an unscrupulous auctioneer or used-car dealer with a working window scraper from unleashing that vehicle on an unsuspecting consumer.
"When there are no parts in sight, let someone else manage that vehicle to its completion as far as the recall," Jackson says now, striking a very different tone from last year. Almost the opposite, in fact.
AutoNation's initiative didn't sway the rest of the auto retailing industry or the National Automobile Dealers Association, which sticks to the premise that any vehicle that's deemed drivable should also be salable.
Today's recall crisis demands, and consumers deserve, a more conscientious approach from the dealer community than the prevailing not-my-problem mentality. Barring that, maybe we should begin the search for that "someone else."
For auto-service and technology entrepreneurs seeking opportunity, a critically underserved market awaits you: Consumers want safe, recall-free used cars and have a right to expect them. The existing dealer community isn't providing them. It wants "someone else" to do the hard work.
So be that "someone else." Work with regulators to develop a certification program that rewards responsible actors. Take recalled vehicles off dealers' hands, and charge them whatever the going rate is for a clear conscience.
Patiently run the vehicle identification numbers through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other safety checks. Better yet, develop and patent a search engine by which a service shop can run multiple VINs through the federal database. Find a bored teenager to do it if you have to.
Then track and secure the parts -- as a NHTSA-certified agent, negotiate priority treatment from suppliers -- arrange repairs at an authorized service center and ultimately remarket the vehicles at a premium as recall-free.
Or start smaller as a vendor. Operate a desk at partner dealerships, working out of the used-car department, much as Enterprise runs its loaner shops. Have dealer clients walk their used-car buyers to the Recall Express counter, where they can review pending recalls on their chosen vehicle, order parts and schedule repairs before taking delivery. Take responsibility for the follow-up; you get paid when the repair is done.
Can't make a profit? Don't try. Set up as a regional cooperative mutually owned by a group of dealers to collect unsalable vehicles and get them to the appropriate shops for repair. Arrange for exchanges or transport of cars between a Ford dealer who's sitting on a Chevy trade-in, and his Chevy counterpart across town.
Keeping recalled used cars off the road may be impractical, but it's not impossible.
It requires an agent that is innovative and dedicated to the task. That may rule out auto dealers. But it's a prime opportunity for others to do some good.