After mixed results in a flurry of state-level battles with dealers over its direct-selling model, Tesla Motors is pondering whether to take the fight to Washington.
The rest of the auto industry intently awaits Tesla's decision. A federal challenge -- through legislation or a lawsuit -- may be a long shot. But some dealers say they fear for the future of the franchise system if Tesla succeeds.
"If responding to these dealers associations' actions becomes too much of a distraction, then it would be natural to pursue a federal solution," said Diarmuid O'Connell, Tesla's vice president of business development. "It doesn't mean that would be easy to obtain.
"We're very realistic about that -- but I certainly think it would be a lively debate in Washington."
It's a fight that one dealer representative has dubbed the billionaire vs. the millionaires.
For the billionaire, Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk, the stakes are high. He says his fledgling electric vehicle company will fail unless it is allowed to operate its own retail network. Tesla dealerships are modeled after Apple stores, with small locations in high-end, high-traffic shopping centers.
"The auto dealers association is definitely creating some problems for us, making it harder to get things done," Musk told shareholders at the company's annual meeting in June. "... The challenge we face is that the auto dealers are very strong and very influential at the state level among the legislatures."
Those dealers -- the millionaires, by and large -- contend that Tesla's factory-store model violates franchise and consumer laws in many states. If Musk succeeds, dealers fear manufacturers from developing countries would try to sell directly -- or even that automakers already established in the United States could carve out new brands to sell through company stores.
Leaders at the National Automobile Dealers Association argue that Musk faces an uphill battle, but they recognize the attention he can command.
"He's got celebrity flair, and he has captured the minds of a lot of people through his products and his marketing," NADA President Peter Welch told Automotive News. "Everybody's talking about it. It's the buzz of the auto industry."
Should Musk win, "we're concerned about other upstarts that would come in, particularly maybe Chinese manufacturers that are looking for a simple way to do it," Welch said.