Indiana is back with another bill to ban Tesla’s direct sales model

If a proposed Indiana House bill is passed, manufacturers of “all-electric vehicles” would be banned from selling directly to consumers. The bill does not direct any specific language to Tesla Motors, Inc., but the innovative vehicle manufacturer is clearly the target of the legislation. Add Indiana into the mix of Tesla’s long list of court cases pending in which car dealers and automakers claim that they, as intermediaries, have sole right to sell vehicles to consumers.

Indiana House Bill 1592

Indiana automakers have traditionally used an established network of dealers who negotiate with buyers and provide automotive repair services. These automakers are part of a large umbrella of politically influential groups. They argue that Tesla’s model allows the company to evade laws, which confers an unfair advantage to Tesla and provides no accountability to its buyers.

Here is the synopsis of the Indiana House Bill 1592.

Automobile sales requirements. Provides that a manufacturer may engage in sales directly to the public only if the manufacturer meets certain requirements. Provides that a manufacturer can no longer engage in sales directly to the public after the earlier of: (1) reaching 1,000 units in cumulative annual sales; or (2) six years after the initial dealer’s license is granted.

Additionally, Sec. 20. of the bill reads:

A manufacturer licensed under this article may engage in sales directly to the general public only if the manufacturer (1) has exclusively offered for sale to the general public in Indiana all-electric vehicles on a continuous basis since July 15, 2015; (2) has never offered for sale to the general public in Indiana a line make of new motor vehicles through a franchised motor vehicle dealer.

Tesla is the only vehicle manufacturer which meets these particular criteria. Tesla sells its electric vehicles directly to consumers, while other manufacturers like General Motors, Ford, Subaru, and Toyota sell through Indiana dealerships. If passed, the bill would severely limit Tesla’s ability as a manufacturer to sell to the public:

Subject to the expiration schedule under IC 9-32-11-12.5, a manufacturer can no longer sell to the public after the earlier of the following: (1) A manufacturer described in this section reaches cumulative annual sales of one thousand (1,000) units to the general public from its licensed location in Indiana.

The author of the bill, Rep. Edmond Soliday, a Republican, has authored or co-authored several transportation bills, including transportation infrastructure funding, automated traffic enforcement, vehicle excise taxes, and department of transportation property matters. He defeated Midwest Environmental Systems CEO Pamela Fish in the November, 2016 elections. House Bill 1592 will be heard by the Roads and Transportation committee.

Last year another Republican, Rep. Kevin Mahan, supported a similar bill that would have forced manufacturers to sell their vehicles through a dealership. “For the average Hoosier, purchasing an automobile can be daunting and a big investment,” Mahan said. “A greater variety of vehicles are now available and can be brought directly to consumers virtually anywhere in the country. In the event of a recall or malfunction, consumers should be protected.”

Arguments against limiting manufacturer sales

Tesla Motors, Inc.’s Vice President of Corporate and Business Development Diarmuid O’Connell testified against House Bill 1592. “Tesla does not operate through some kind of loophole in Indiana law,” O’Connell said. “The current law is explicit in Tesla’s ability to sell directly and, as written today, it is not broken.” O’Connell’s remarks point to current Indiana law in which an auto manufacturer is not allowed to open a store in direct competition with an affiliated franchised dealer. Tesla has no direct competition franchise dealers in Indiana and has always sold directly to consumers. O’Connell added that Tesla’s presence in Indiana has “brought only good to the consumer welfare without harming anyone — not even the dealers.”

At stake is more than a corporate tug-of-war between automakers. Tesla’s electric vehicles are at the heart of that vision for tomorrow’s consumer domestic transportation and will continue to flourish and change the way automakers in the U.S. and abroad have conducted business as usual.

If “you’re interested in promoting competition and free market principles … you recognize direct distribution, particularly for a company like Tesla, is critically important,” said Todd Maron, the company’s chief counsel, during remarks at a 2016 Federal Trade Commission event. “We don’t simply believe that [electric vehicles] represent a nice complement to gas powered cars. We believe that it’s imperative that they are replaced entirely by electric vehicles.” An end to franchising laws would advance that goal and place low-mileage gas-powered vehicles at risk of obsolescence.

Arguments in favor of limiting manufacturer sales

A coalition of free market groups, led by Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, argues that ending or restricting automotive franchising would actually decrease consumer choice. Norquist believes that reducing competition among dealers selling the same car brands hurts consumers. Franchising laws were actually created by anti-trust efforts at the Federal Trade Commission and “they sustain market competition rather than undermine it.” Last year, the group accused federal regulators of ignoring evidence that would undermine proposed measures governing automotive sales that stand to enrich what they saw as a “politically-powerful company” at consumers’ expense.

Harry Tepe, owner of Tom Tepe Auto Center in Milan, Indiana, supports legislation that would further protect consumers in the auto industry. “We just want to make sure there are protections in place for the consumers,” Tepe said. “The issue at hand is that the loophole is still open that allows any manufacturer to come in and market a vehicle and sell directly to the public without having any protections in place for the consumer.” He takes the position that dealerships are responsible for being a liaison between the consumer and the manufacturer.

Lobbying on behalf of the automotive industry

Proponents and opponents of Indiana House Bill 1592 are, in many cases, influenced by a powerful automotive lobby in the U.S. Automotive industry lobbyists use a combination of strategies to gain influence. They do a lot of research, sit down with lawmakers one-on-one, deliver  messages in writing, and call Congressmen and members of the administration on the phone.

“If you’re a big company, like a carmaker, and you’re lobbying lawmakers, you’re almost like a pro sports team. You want to get the big names, the most talented, most knowledgeable people,” said David Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks the money spent in the U.S. political system and its effect on elections and public policy. “So, these big companies, in the major industries, hire former Congressmen and top Congressional staffers and other high-ranking government officials to be their lobbyists, because those are the folks who know who all the other major players are and they know the ways of Washington.”




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