Tesla, Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Lucid Motors — potential rivals in the burgeoning EV market — are working together to pass laws that would allow direct sales in at least eight states with another batch of proposed legislation likely being introduced this year.
Passage of such legislation would clear the way for EV giants like Tesla, along with newcomers Lucid and Rivian, which have yet to bring a vehicle to market, to sell directly to consumers. However, Tesla’s cooperation could also cost the company its monopoly on direct sales in some states.
Tesla and a growing number of new EV companies have a different business model than legacy automakers like GM, Ford and Stellantis. Tesla sells vehicles through their own branded stores — similar to how Apple sells its products — and do not have franchised dealerships. The direct sales model has attracted the ire of auto dealers, who benefit from long-established rules in all 50 states that prevent manufacturers with existing franchisees from opening their own dealerships to compete with them. Tesla and other allies argue that because they don’t have franchise dealers, they should be allowed to sell directly to consumers.
“We support our other EV-only manufacturers and their desires to sell direct-to-consumers, to invest, to create jobs and to do that unfettered as we are allowed,” Thad Kurowski, senior policy manager at Tesla, said while testifying in the state of Washington during the House’s Consumer Protection and Business Committee. Washington is one of many states where such legislation is being considered. Tesla has six retail locations in the state.
Similar legislation is being considered in Connecticut, Nebraska, Georgia, New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Some of these states ban all EV manufacturers from directly selling to customers; some only permit Tesla, at the exclusion of other companies, but cap the number of retail stores it can open.
It’s a rare moment of cooperation for EV manufacturers, companies that must contend not only with each other but with legacy automakers for market share. Relations between the companies have not always been so copacetic: Tesla last July filed a lawsuit against Rivian alleging theft of trade secrets and talent poaching. Rivian responded that two of the three claims in the case were nothing more than an attempt to smear its reputation.
Tesla is a veteran of battles with state legislatures over direct sales. At least a dozen states, including Arizona, Colorado and Utah have reversed bans that prevented Tesla from selling directly to consumers either through new legislation or via the courts.
Michigan, home to major automakers GM and Ford, has been a longtime battleground.
Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill in 2014 that was initiated and backed by the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association, banning Tesla from selling directly to consumers in the state. Two years later, Tesla sued the state of Michigan when it denied Tesla a dealership license. The Michigan Legislature last December considered a bill that would have banned all direct sales except for Tesla, an arrangement that allowed the automaker to deliver cars to customers, so long as the vehicle sale and title transfer didn’t occur in the state. That special exception for Tesla was removed from the proposed legislation, a move that would have threatened what little progress it had in the state. At the end, though, the legislation died, leaving Tesla’s arrangement intact.
Lucid is leading the charge in some states where direct sales legislation is being considered, according to Daniel Witt, who worked at Tesla before joining the new EV entrant as a public policy lead. Witt emphasized the bills are the result of efforts from the coalition of EV companies, grassroots lobbying from EV owners and EV enthusiasts and consumer groups. The legislation has also found support from environmental and clean energy groups, which argue that consumer choice and ease of access are key to helping people transition away from internal combustion engine cars.
“Any situation where the door got closed behind Tesla was not a matter of trying to gain a market advantage so much as it was just a product of the negotiations in a given legislature,” Witt said. “By and large, whether it’s New York, or Washington or Connecticut, we’re all rowing in the same direction.”
In a statement to TechCrunch, the Washington State Auto Dealers Association said franchised dealers support the transition toward zero-emission vehicles and want to sell them at their locations. But it said the direct sale bill is a “battle of Main Street vs. Wall Street.”
“Electric vehicle manufacturers perpetuate [the] myth of the middleman when the reality is that they would bear the same costs if they built their own stores, but would ship their revenue to their billionaire investors out of state after the sale is made instead of reinvesting in the community,” the group said.
The organization pointed out that Rivian has garnered $500 million in funding from Ford. Rivian, which is now valued at $27.6 billion, has numerous backers, including Amazon, T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., Fidelity Management and Research Company, Coatue, Cox Automotive and D1 Capital Partners.
“What would stop Ford from abandoning its dealer network, and shifting the profits dealers generate for the company out of Ford and into greater ownership of Rivian? Or GM from spinning off an EV subsidiary?” the group said in its statement.
It should be noted that, Ford nor GM has ever expressed plans to abandon its dealer network.
EV manufacturers have a long legislative road ahead of them. Bills generally must clear legislative committees and receive majority votes from both the House and Senate before being sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
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