The other day, David Pogue — the tech writer (Yahoo, New York Times, Scientific American), TV correspondent (“CBS News Sunday Morning,” PBS “Nova Science Now”) and author (“Missing Manual” series, “Pogue’s Basics”) — reported a Tesla story.
Pogue is also a devoted Westporter. He decided to localize his piece, exclusively for “06880.” After all, our town is (supposedly) the Tesla capital of Connecticut. He writes:
These days, we’re seeing a lot of Teslas on Westport streets. And no wonder: These electric cars are gorgeous, fast, and unbelievably smart. They’re far better for the environment than internal-combustion cars. You never need gas. There’s no engine and no transmission, so there are no oil changes, tuneups, or emissions checks. You get a total of $10,500 from the state and federal government, in cash and tax credits, to help you buy one.
And in Westport, there are free charging stations all over town — in the sweetest electric-car-only parking spots.
But every time you see a Tesla in Westport, remember that its owner drove to Mount Kisco, New York to get it.
That’s right: You’re not allowed to buy a Tesla in Connecticut.
Robin Tauck’s Tesla license plate sends a message.
Connecticut and 15 other states have an ancient law on the books. It bans a car maker from selling directly to the public, as Tesla stores do.
The law was designed 80 years ago to protect local franchises — the traditional car-dealership model — from having to compete with stores opened by the car makers themselves. Local Ford dealerships, for example, didn’t want Ford to open its own store across the street and run them out of business.
Of course, the law never envisioned a car company, like Tesla, that didn’t use the franchise system. (Why doesn’t Tesla use the normal local-franchise dealership model? It believes that electric cars require more explaining and patience than a traditional dealer would bother with.)
A number of states have recognized the anachronism and overturned the ban—but not Connecticut. Every time the ban comes up for a vote in our state legislature, our legislators continue keeping Tesla out of the state.
That’s a result of lobbying work by CARA (Connecticut Auto Retailers’ Association). “They’ll be the legislators’ best friends,” says Bruce Becker, president of the Electric Vehicle Club of Connecticut. “What some dealers do is, they’ll actually man the campaigns. They’ll have a campaign headquarters in their dealerships. There’s one dealer who’s actually running the campaign for someone who’s running for governor.”
He says that there’s a simple reason why car dealers want to keep Tesla out: because electric cars threaten their profits. Car dealerships make most of their money on service (3 times as much profit as they get from selling cars, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association). And as noted above, electric cars require almost no service.
“You’ve got these entrenched special interests that have really pushed hard, and they seem to be more entrenched every year, because they see the risks to them personally,” Westport state senator Toni Boucher told me. “There’s such an enormous amount of opposition.”
20 Saugatuck Avenue was considered recently as a site for a Tesla service center.
So what’s the result? Connecticut loses jobs, sales, and property tax to surrounding states.
This protectionism will make it difficult to reach Connecticut’s environmental goals (to lower emissions to 45 percent of 2001 levels by 2030).
“This is the unfortunate thing about CT politics: So much energy goes into creating these monopolies and protecting and limiting trade, as opposed to innovating and creating a more efficient economy,” says Becker.
I did a deep dive on this topic in my Yahoo Finance column this week. I interviewed not only Bruce Becker and Toni Boucher, but also Westport’s state representative Jonathan Steinberg; Tesla’s head counsel Todd Maron, and car-dealership lobbyist Jim Fleming, president of the CT Auto Retailers’ Association.
It’s a surprisingly fraught, sensitive, contentious issue, filled with back-room deals and arguments on both sides about what’s best for the consumer.
Meanwhile, next time you see a Tesla driving by, nod in acknowledgment to the trip its owner took to Mount Kisco.