Investor's Corner

“We Need To Be Evangelists,” Tesla Tells FTC

Tesla general counsel Todd Maron told the FTC this week that traditional auto dealers have a basic conflict of interest with selling electric cars.

At the Federal Trade Commission panel discussion on Wednesday, Tesla general counsel Todd Maron made this opening statement:

“Any discussion of why Tesla sells directly comes back to our mission. Our mission is quite specific. It is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transportation. You can say we’re true believers and it wouldn’t be an unfair characterization. That’s our mission because we fervently believe that transitioning to electric vehicles is critical to the health of our planet and simply because we believe that electric vehicles are superior vehicles to their gas-powered counterparts. They’re higher-performing, they’re more efficient and they’re safer than gas-powered cars.”

The FTC has indicated it favors direct sales, despite determined opposition from franchise dealers in several states. Maron used the panel discussion to expand on why Tesla does not think dealers are the best way to get the message about electric cars out to potential customers. It takes a lot of effort to explain new technology to people, he said. Dealers are interested in moving as many cars as possible in the shortest possible time.

Usually, most of the discussion that takes place between a dealer and customer revolves around price, not educating the consumer. You can’t expect a dealer to do your evangelizing for you, Maron said. Tesla doesn’t want or need sprawling sales lots brimming with hundreds of cars. Tesla builds each car for a specific customer. It doesn’t stockpile inventory the way traditional dealers do. It also doesn’t play pricing games with its customers. Maron thinks most dealers would have no idea how to do business the Tesla way.

With margins on new cars razor thin, most dealers are focused on making money from repairs and service.  “We can’t offer that to any franchised dealer, because we only profit in one way: new car sales and new car sales alone. We can’t make money from service, because our cars have far less parts than gas-powered cars. There are no regular service visits for engine tune-ups and oil changes. We don’t have an engine. We don’t have oil.”

Maron indicated dealers have a basic conflict of interest with the Tesla mission, according to Autoblog. Tesla believes that gas-powered vehicles should “be replaced entirely” by electric vehicles. “Even if you wanted to outsource the responsibility of communicating this message, it would be impossible for traditional dealers to convey this adequately,” he said. “This isn’t a knock on them. Dealers are not fundamentally convinced of the mission of EVs as we are. They make 99 percent of their revenue off gas-powered cars.”

Maron is not the only one who thinks traditional dealers are road blocks on the pathway to electric cars. The Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis also claims most dealers don’t want to be bothered with selling EVs. People who go to a dealer to buy an electric car report that sales representatives are poorly trained and often try to switch them to conventional cars rather than take the time to educate them about the advantages of electric cars.

At the hearing in Washington, FTC chair Edith Ramirez said that, “The automobile marketplace may be on the precipice of dramatic change.” Was that a hint that regulators may be considering new rules that would permit direct sales of motor vehicles to consumers? So far, the FTC has tried to stay above the fray, but there was a sense at these hearings that changes are coming and may be imminent.


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