Don’t Ban Tesla, Let It Compete
We wrote last year about the attempt of Missouri Car Dealers and their lobbyists to prohibit Tesla from directly selling its vehicles to consumers. The Missouri Department of Revenue granted Tesla a dealership license in 2013, and the company now has stores in University City and Kansas City. But according to the Missouri Auto Dealers Association (MADA), Tesla is breaking Missouri’s Motor Vehicle Franchise Law and creating unfair competition through its manufacturer-direct sales. Legislative action to shut down Tesla failed last year, so MADA has sued the Department of Revenue.
However, MADA’s claims hold little merit. The Motor Vehicle Franchise Law bans manufacturer-direct sales for franchisors (meaning those with franchises in the state). Tesla does not use the franchise model to sell its cars, and hence is not banned from direct sales. And this is not a loophole. The Franchise Law was designed as a series of protections to prevent large car companies from undercutting their own franchisees. It was not written to enshrine the independent car dealerships as the only method to sell cars in the state.
That is an important distinction, because whether or not Missourians believe car companies need to be legally prohibited from cannibalizing their own marketing and sales outlets, there is no economic justification banning a manufacturer-direct car sales model. As I wrote in a recent op-ed:
. . . vehicle distribution through dealerships can be costly to the consumer. The 2009 Department of Justice paper “Economic Effects of State Bans on Direct Manufacturer Sales to Car Buyers” reported that as much as 30 percent of the cost of a new car is due to auto distribution. Enshrining the car dealership model in law has limited the ability of car manufacturers to both reduce inventory costs and increase customization, practices common in other markets. In Brazil, where GM can engage in direct sales, cost savings from order to delivery averaged 8.6 percent through direct sales.
Car buyers . . . might prefer directly buying from manufacturers for lower prices, customization, or simply to avoid bargaining at a dealership. A J.D. Power and Associates poll found that half of Americans profess a desire to buy manufacturer-direct, even if the prices are equivalent.
While that does not mean the dealership model would or should disappear, the government should not stop Tesla or any other car company from trying something different. That freedom to innovate is essential for a competitive market.