Tesla Motors is going on offense in battles with dealer associations over its retail model.
As dealers in some states try to tighten franchise laws to block factory-owned dealerships, Tesla is aggressively lobbying policymakers, reaching out to fans to foster public support and even countering with its own franchise law proposals.
The electric-car maker chalked up a win in Minnesota last week when the state dealer association there dropped its pursuit -- at least for now -- of a franchise law bill that would have prevented Tesla from opening stores in the state.
Another legislative showdown looms in Massachusetts, where the state dealers association and Tesla are backing separate bills that would address the franchise act's stance on factory ownership. And Tesla, which also faces lawsuits by dealers in Massachusetts and New York, continues to track legislative activity in other states.
Tesla executives say the company is merely defending itself.
"Our posture is that of the aggrieved party," Diarmuid O'Connell, Tesla's vice president of business development, wrote in an e-mail to Automotive News. "We would not be engaged in any of this legislative activity or litigation if the dealer associations were not trying to shut us out of their markets."
Dealer association heads say they are trying to enforce or clarify existing laws restricting factory ownership of dealerships. They say they won't back down and will do more lobbying to convince lawmakers and the public of the benefits of the franchise system, including its advantages for consumers over manufacturer-owned stores.
"We're here to defend the franchise system, and Tesla is trying to promote a nonfranchise system," said Scott Lambert, executive vice president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. "The fight has really just started. Tesla is bringing this issue to the forefront, and I think they're going to have their hands full in states all over the country before this is done."
Tesla has 22 U.S. stores and showrooms in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
O'Connell, who leads Tesla's efforts at the state level, acknowledges that some states have statutes that make it difficult to operate a Tesla retail store.
He pointed out Colorado, where Tesla opened a store in 2009. The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association went to the state legislature to tighten the law and "closed the door on us" for additional stores, he said. The existing Tesla store in Colorado is legal under a grandfathering provision.