Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tesla: The Anti-Dealer

 Tesla is unique for an automobile company. Not only do they manufacture electric, non-hybrid, non-gasoline cars, but they sell direct to their customers--no middlemen, no dealers. Their sales model is more like Apple, with boutique shops in high-traffic shopping centers. This infuriated the American franchised car dealer system who earlier this year took the young car company to court in New York state. The judge ruled in favor of Tesla.

The cab driver arrived at the Pony Soldier Inn. A jet-lagged Arnie and Reggie hopped into the taxi destined for the Tesla sales office in a suburb south of Portland.

 "Where is this place?"  The cab driver was lost. There was no signage from the main road Arnie gave him. Where are we, Columbia, Maryland?

After circling the business park Reggie spied a flag. The storefront was really a storeback. It faced opposite the driveway entrance, tucked away at the end of a row of business--also without signs. A red flag waved proclaiming the non-dealer's presence.

Five Teslas were parked out front: a silver, black and white Model S and two blue Roadsters. A Chevy Volt was parked on the far end. When customers arrived at this office they came to pay, sign some forms and drive away--like Arnie, they were already sold. This was no boutique shop. Arnie walked inside and introduced himself.

The sales guy smiled. "So you traveled from Maryland?"


"Why didn't you just buy one over there?" Another Tesla office is located in Rockville.

"I could have, but I wouldn't be able to drive it home cross country."

The young salesman--who described himself more accurately as a "post-salesman"--excused himself and made a phone call to iron out the registration and titling issues between the states. "Well, he's a weird situation..."

Shortly after, an elderly couple walked up the stairs into the office, quickly received their key fobs and drove away in the white Model S out front (or out back, depending on how you see things).

"What was their reason for buying a Tesla," Arnie asked.

"Everybody has a different reason," the post-salesman said. "They fit in the 'I want to save the world' category. For others it's economic, to save gas money. Then you have the motor heads, the tech nerds. We get a variety of people from all different backgrounds."

He estimated he sold about one a day with about 60 percent regional buyers and 40 percent traveling a farther distance. 

"You ever get anyone who's about to drive cross-country?"

"A freelance photographer started in California, drove along the south then up the east coast. I met him back here when he came to charge up."

After signing the paperwork, they go outside to the black Model S, drag a long, thick, black cable from the garage down the loading ramp and insert it behind a red, rear tail light.

 As if an agent from the Central Intelligence Agency the post-salesman gave Arnie a briefing:

"Carry this key fob in your pocket." He handed Arnie a black device with no visible buttons that would easily fit on a key ring. "The car will sense your presence. Go ahead and open the door." Arnie reached for the silver handle which was flush with the door, but before he touched it, the handle pushed out to meet his eager fingertips. Arnie sat in the driver seat and the post-sales guy joined him on the passenger side. A crash course in cutting edge automobile technology ensued.

Like a smart phone on steroids, an 18-inch vertical touch screen displayed all the automobile's controls: sunroof, displays, trip meters (distance, total energy and average energy since last charge), steering mode, traction control, suspension height, regenerative breaking mode, creep; door locks, truck releases, driver profiles (which memorize seat and mirror settings); time, temperature and distance formats, world wide web browser, blue tooth for cell phones and audio devices; energy consumption and projected driving range on the current battery charge. Did I miss anything? Surely. Rear camera. Anything else? Yup, but you get the idea: Buying a 2013 Tesla is buying a computer on wheels. The vehicle makes you feel like Bruce Wayne.

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