Tesla’s win in Michigan marks a point of no return for traditional auto

Tesla showroom in Century City mall, Los Angeles (Credit: Teslarati)

After resisting Tesla for years, the heart of American auto, Michigan, finally allowed the electric car maker to establish a foothold in the state. It was a hard-fought battle for Tesla, and a victory well worth more than CEO Elon Musk’s one-word celebration on Twitter. But at the same time, Tesla’s settlement with Michigan, which would allow the company to sell and service its cars in the state, marks a point of no return for traditional auto. 

It may not be evident now, but from this point on, it will be twice as difficult for states to resist disruptive new EV makers that do not follow a traditional dealership sales model. This means that even other carmakers such as Rivian will likely have a clear path forward in their expansion into the United States’ auto market, absent of the direct sales roadblocks that the Elon Musk-led company has dealt with for years. 

Michigan is considered the heart of the US auto industry, and for good reason. The country’s motoring history was written within the state’s borders, and iconic companies that changed the industry, such as Ford, call Michigan their home. Yet, for all its dedication to the car industry, Michigan has also been very resistant to Tesla, preventing the electric car maker from selling its vehicles in the state due to the company’s direct sales strategy.

Tesla’s difficulties in Michigan were a painful reminder that the company’s goal of transitioning the transportation industry towards sustainability would be marred with difficulties left and right, signified by the state’s dealer franchise laws. This is one of the reasons why the company’s settlement with the state is so important. Daniel Crane, a University of Michigan law professor who specializes in antitrust and regulatory issues, explained these points in an interview with Automotive News

“The handwriting’s on the wall for the franchised dealer as the exclusive way consumers interact with car companies. It’s pretty clear it’d be impossible for the state to deny someone else; it paves the way for any new EV company that doesn’t want to use traditional dealerships.”

“The legacy companies can’t continue forever to use a dealer model from the 1930s. Being required to use only that, I think, is a competitive disadvantage. They’ll have to find a way to get flexibility in their distribution method, or they’ll be left behind,” he said. 

The dealer model deserves some recognition, as the United States’ auto industry would likely not have gotten this far without it. Yet in the age of electrification, dealerships, which are known for their flexible pricing strategies and reliance on regular vehicle maintenance, are starting to become outdated. Tesla is the living representation of this, as the company’s cars are priced like tech devices, and its vehicles require far less maintenance compared to internal combustion cars. 

One key takeaway from Tesla’s conquest and subsequent victory in Michigan is the fact that the electric car maker is only the first of many. The state has allowed the company to sell and service its cars within its borders, and it will be hard-pressed to not do the same for other automakers. Tesla may be leading the charge, after all, but it is not alone. There’s Rivian, which is also planning on adopting a non-dealership sales model, and more are likely coming. By allowing Tesla to sell and service its cars within the state, Michigan has just accelerated the industry’s transition to sustainability. 

Very few may see it now, but through this little settlement with Tesla, the US auto industry may have just passed the proverbial point of no return.

Tesla’s recent settlement with the state of Michigan can be read below.

Tesla-MI-Joint Stipulation and Motion for Entry of Dismissal 1-22-20 679161 7 by Simon Alvarez on Scribd

Simon Alvarez: Simon is a reporter with a passion for electric cars and clean energy. Fascinated by the world envisioned by Elon Musk, he hopes to make it to Mars (at least as a tourist) someday.
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