Don’t Ban Tesla to Protect Middlemen
Missouri auto dealers, through the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association (MADA), is on the offensive. Their target is Tesla, the luxury electric car manufacturer, and their goal is to prevent the company from selling cars in Missouri. They backed a bill in 2014 which would have banned Tesla, and now that that effort has failed, they have filed a lawsuit against the state of Missouri.
The essence of the dispute is that Tesla, uniquely among U.S. car companies, does not use middlemen (dealerships) to sell its cars. MADA, which represents those middlemen, wants it to be illegal for a car company to directly sell its vehicles to consumers. They claim it already is illegal, under the Missouri Motor Vehicle Franchise laws. But the Missouri Department of Revenue disagrees, claiming the laws are only applicable to manufacturers that have dealerships in the state and are not designed to enshrine dealerships as the only method of selling cars.
Along with their legal and legislature maneuvering, MADA is publicizing why Missouri should create more regulations to enshrine the dealership model as the only way to sell cars. They argue that without car dealerships the state’s economy would suffer and that consumers need the type of long-term car care that only they, and not the manufacturer, can provide.
Without a doubt, using car dealerships as a sales and maintenance unit has many advantages for manufacturers and consumers. After all, it became the dominant mode of selling cars for a reason. However, it is not an intrinsically superior way to buy and sell a car and certainly should not be afforded new legal protection.
For example, according to a report from the Department of Justice, dealerships can raise the costs of selling cars. Experiences from General Motors sales internationally have shown that manufacturer-direct sales can lower the cost of a car by 8.6 percent. Furthermore, consumers may prefer manufacturer-direct sales over the uncertainty of haggling with car dealers, if they are given the choice. One poll conducted in the United States found that half of respondents would prefer to buy from the manufacturer even if they were not offered a lower price.
MADA’s efforts would take that choice away. They claim that buying a car is an important financial decision and that dealers provide the long-term care customers need. But there is no shortage of ways consumers could choose to service their vehicles if they buy directly from Tesla, including agreements with auto-repair shops. Car buyers are no less capable of looking after their assets than homebuyers, who somehow manage to purchase and maintain houses without house dealerships.
As for the economy as a whole, protecting a certain way of selling cars is no way to increase jobs or increase competitiveness. Business models change constantly and create new opportunities and products even as they replace older ones. That sentiment underlined the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) criticism of Missouri’s legally entrenched franchise system. They stated, “[C]onsumers are the ones best situated to choose for themselves both the cars they want to buy and how they want to buy them.” That may not always be to the benefit of car dealers, but it’s good economics and good for the state.