On Tuesday, under pressure from the New Jersey auto dealer lobby to protect its monopoly, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, composed of political appointees of the Governor, ended your right to purchase vehicles at a manufacturer store within the state. Governor Christie had promised that this would be put to a vote of the elected state legislature, which is the appropriate way to change the law. When it became apparent to the auto dealer lobby that this approach would not succeed, they cut a backroom deal with the Governor to circumvent the legislative process and pass a regulation that is fundamentally contrary to the intent of the law.
It is worth examining the history of these laws to understand why they exist, as the auto dealer franchise laws were originally put in place for a just cause and are now being twisted to an unjust purpose. Many decades ago, the incumbent auto manufacturers sold franchises to generate capital and gain a salesforce. The franchisees then further invested a lot of their money and time in building up the dealerships. That’s a fair deal and it should not be broken. However, some of the big auto companies later engaged in pressure tactics to get the franchisees to sell their dealerships back at a low price. The franchisees rightly sought protection from their state legislatures, which resulted in the laws on the books today throughout the United States (these laws are not present anywhere else in the world).
The intent was simply to prevent a fair and longstanding deal between an existing auto company and its dealers from being broken, not to prevent a new company that has no franchisees from selling directly to consumers. In most states, the laws are reasonable and clear. In a handful of states, the laws were written in an overzealous or ambiguous manner. When all auto companies sold through franchises, this didn’t really matter. However, when Tesla came along as a new company with no existing franchisees, the auto dealers, who possess vastly more resources and influence than Tesla, nonetheless sought to force us to sell through them.
The reason that we did not choose to do this is that the auto dealers have a fundamental conflict of interest between promoting gasoline cars, which constitute virtually all of their revenue, and electric cars, which constitute virtually none. Moreover, it is much harder to sell a new technology car from a new company when people are so used to the old. Inevitably, they revert to selling what’s easy and it is game over for the new company.
The evidence is clear: when has an American startup auto company ever succeeded by selling through auto dealers? The last successful American car company was Chrysler, which was founded almost a century ago, and even they went bankrupt a few years ago, along with General Motors. Since the founding of Chrysler, there have been dozens of failures, Tucker and DeLorean being simply the most well-known. In recent years, electric car startups, such as Fisker, Coda, and many others, attempted to use auto dealers and all failed.
An even bigger conflict of interest with auto dealers is that they make most of their profit from service, but electric cars require much less service than gasoline cars. There are no oil, spark plug or fuel filter changes, no tune-ups and no smog checks needed for an electric car. Also, all Tesla Model S vehicles are capable of over-the-air updates to upgrade the software, just like your phone or computer, so no visit to the service center is required for that either.
Going a step further, I have made it a principle within Tesla that we should never attempt to make servicing a profit center. It does not seem right to me that companies try to make a profit off customers when their product breaks. Overcharging people for unneeded servicing (often not even fixing the original problem) is rampant within the industry and happened to me personally on several occasions when I drove gasoline cars. I resolved that we would endeavor never to do such a thing at Tesla, as described in the Tesla service blog post I wrote last year.