With these markets off-limits, and other doors potentially closing, Tesla is escalating its battle. Last month the EV maker sued top Michigan officials in federal court, challenging the prohibition on direct sales as protectionist and unconstitutional. The suit came a week after Michigan's secretary of state ruled out a dealer's license for Tesla, and after Tesla, legislators and dealer groups failed to reach a compromise earlier in the year.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder told Automotive News that Tesla hasn't yet presented a viable argument to state officials and lawmakers for being allowed to sell its vehicles directly to consumers.
"I'm always open to having that discussion," said Snyder, a former executive at Gateway, a direct seller of personal computers. "It's just that Tesla and the other people who want to do that need to present their case to the legislature and see if they get people interested in moving on something like that."
By taking things to the federal level, Tesla will face a tough fight since those courts are often wary of second-guessing long-established state policies, Crane said.
But the automaker sees a precedent in a unanimous ruling in 2002 by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- whose purview includes Michigan -- that found that the government can't use protectionist regulations to restrict someone's right to earn an honest living. The original ruling pertained to casket makers in Tennessee who were initially barred from selling their wares directly to customers without a state funeral director's license.
Tesla is also encouraged by a similar ruling -- also involving direct casket sales -- that was upheld in 2013 by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The biggest state in that court's jurisdiction? Texas, where Tesla has been fighting for years to sell directly to consumers.
Regardless of what Tesla accomplishes in the federal courts, it's unclear whether its business model will be able to survive as is, or evolve into a hybrid of direct and franchised sales. Many dealership groups and associations across the country have made it clear they'd love the opportunity to sell Teslas.
Todd Maron, Tesla's general counsel, told Automotive News that the company has no plans to adopt any other business model, regardless of future volumes or types of vehicle sold. But Tesla's critics and supporters think it's inevitable.
Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk left the door open to a hybrid system once Tesla has an established base of customers.
"We would only do this if we were sure that the customer would have a really good experience," Musk said at the 2015 Automotive News World Congress.
But for direct-sales critics salivating at the thought of having a Tesla franchise, he had this warning: "If you're a jerk to us, we're not going to turn around and try to do a partnership later."
Katie Burke contributed to this report.