Tesla, Local Regulations, and the New Normal for Innovators

Tesla’s latest spat on its direct-sales model with the state of New Jersey is dumb, but it’s nothing new for the company or other rising start-ups. The case is another piece in a growing trend of local regulations stifling innovative companies. As the sharing economy has grown and technological innovation has made electric cars affordable and reliable, local governments and regulators have found ways to impede their ability to reach consumers. Some research has discounted the impact of local regulations on start-up companies and entrepreneurs, while others have highlighted significant regulatory burdens facing small businesses.

You cannot discount the real world examples of cases where state and local governments issued regulations that impair business operations of growing companies. There are Uber’s feuds with city governments and taxicab monopolists in Chicago, DC, Denver, Miami, Nashville, and San Francisco. Airbnb is facing its share of problems in New York City. California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education is leading a crack down on ‘learn to code’ bootcamps. Let’s not forget the culinary innovators in local food truck scenes that are constantly hopping over regulatory hurdles.

In the case of Tesla, auto dealers are worried that this case will set a strong precedent for automakers circumventing dealers to directly sell to consumers. This despite the fact that buying a car is one of the least enjoyable consumer experiences. Tesla has faced similar issues in Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, and other states. In fact, Cornell University’s Journal of Law and Public Policy notes, “the franchise laws of at least 48 states ban or limit Tesla sales—get this—to prevent unfair competition. Franchise laws require automakers to sell their cars exclusively through dealership networks.” There will be plenty of more battles down the line. Overall, these restrictions will hurt Tesla’s long-term viability to offer an automobile that will be more affordable in the coming years due to economies of scale and product innovation.

The surprising nature of these regulatory battles is that the come at a time when state and local governments are devoting significant energy and resources to streamline regulations and promote technological advancements to aid the local permitting process. What’s even more startling is that nearly every major city is supporting entrepreneurial incubators and vying to attract important venture capital funding to foster vibrant start-up environments. Yet local governments are doing all they can to limit the ability of start-up companies to grow and provide citizens with access to new services. Isn’t that a pity?