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Magical Mystery Tour: Tesla Hits the Road to Avoid Michigan Sales Ban

By: Bridget Clerkin July 7, 2017
Tesla is showcasing its cars in Michigan—even though it's prohibited from selling them there.

Without the chance to sell directly to customers in Michigan, Tesla is making a stand and taking its message to the streets—literally.

The Silicon Valley carmaker has been hustling some of its most popular products from an Airstream trailer, on a summer-long tour of the mitten-shaped state.

Conveniently hauled around by a Tesla Model X SUV, the trailer has been transformed into a mobile design suite, from which potential buyers can check out the company’s current models or piece together their own, with the help of Tesla associates.

That type of direct outreach is at once a signature sales maneuver of the company—and a huge thorn in its side. The approach is banned in most states, which instead require all vehicle sales to be conducted through third-party car dealerships.

In Michigan, manufacturers have been outright banned from selling their autos to customers since 2014. (Visitors to Tesla’s mobile marketing machine there can only go as far as designing an auto; to complete the sale, they must turn to either the Internet or a Tesla showroom in another state.)

Nearly from the time the Michigan ban was signed into law, Tesla took up arms against the amendment, suing the state for the right to sell directly to customers there.

Still roiling in state courtrooms, the suit is part of a broader fight Tesla is waging throughout the country to advance its manufacturer-friendly approach. If successful, the campaign could significantly change the way cars are sold across America.

At present, the company’s push for a more open auto market has raised questions over the virtues of the current system—and caused a few reversals of policy—but has for the most part proved ineffective at swaying lawmakers away from the dealership model.

Tesla has denied any connection between its Michigan tour and its inability to sell directly there, saying that it has previously taken the trailer out in California, where manufacturer-direct sales are legal, as well as several states along the East Coast.

Indeed, the mobile design suite is headed for New York, Connecticut, and Utah after its stay in the Great Lakes State, which concludes July 31 in Ann Arbor.

Whether it will be able to go the distance in Michigan remains unclear, but for now, at least, it seems Tesla has found a reliable detour.

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