Tesla to haul mobile showcase around Michigan

By Ian Thibodeau, The Detroit News

Tesla Inc. has found another way to introduce Michiganians to its electric vehicles — even if it still can’t open a store in the state.

The Silicon Valley startup now pegged as America’s most valuable automaker is hauling a custom Airstream travel-trailer around Michigan for several weeks. The trailer, pulled by a Tesla Model X SUV, is outfitted as a mobile design studio which shows all of Tesla’s options and allows potential buyers to design a vehicle — though they’ll have to go online or travel to a showroom in another state to actually purchase one.

Tesla was barred from opening a store in Michigan nearly three years ago when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law banning automakers from selling vehicles directly to consumers.

Tesla started rolling the mobile gallery around Michigan earlier this summer, though it’s had the one-of-a-kind showcase parked in cities in California and on the East Coast, too. The electric-vehicle maker had the custom Airstream trailer outside of Shinola’s flagship Detroit location in Midtown for a week in early June.

The trailer will set up June 29 to July 9 at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in Acme, and from July 11-17 at Crystal Mountain resort in Thompsonville. After the stops up north, the Silicon Valley automaker will roll the mobile studio through Ann Arbor during the Art Fair July 20-23. It will be in Grand Rapids July 27-31.

The mobile design studio wasn’t built to subvert Michigan laws, according to a Tesla spokesman. It’s also used in states where the company is permitted to sell vehicles through its retail stores.

The mobile design suite is the latest feat from Tesla, which has found ways to bring its flashy electric vehicles to markets in which it’s barred from selling. In December, Tesla opened a 700-square-foot showroom inside Nordstrom at Troy’s Somerset Collection where shoppers could look at Tesla vehicles, but not buy them.

Tesla has been trying to win the right to sell and service vehicles in Michigan for years. The company is fighting the state of Michigan in federal court. Tesla in September filed a lawsuit against Snyder, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Attorney General Bill Schuette, alleging Michigan’s law requiring new cars be sold through franchised dealers is unconstitutional.

State officials denied those allegations, calling Tesla’s interpretation of the state law “incorrect.”

The legislation, which passed overwhelmingly by the Michigan Legislature in 2014, was backed by the state’s new-car dealership lobby. The law closed a loophole that Tesla has used in other states to maintain company-owned retail stores and bypass the dealership route.

Snyder said then that the law “clarifies and strengthens” a long-standing law that prohibited direct sales of new cars in Michigan. Previously automakers were prohibited from selling new vehicles directly to retail customers except through its franchised dealers; the revised law removed the word “its,” which Tesla viewed as a strike against the company.

Currently, customers in Michigan have to order from Tesla’s website. It would then either be delivered to the customer, or they could pick it up at a retail store in Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago other city.

The state of Michigan on Thursday was not aware of Tesla’s scheduled stops, but spokesman Fred Woodhams said if the company isn’t offering vehicles for sale, the trailer is allowed to display the company’s products.