Tesla is sort of the Justin Bieber of cars -- popular, youthful and nice-looking but something of a troublemaker. Or perhaps we should say "disruptor" as that's the term Silicon Valley types prefer for an innovative product that shakes up existing business models.
The Tesla is wowing its fans at the same time it's getting under the skin of regulators, worrying the sober-minded and annoying the hell out of competitors.
First, the bad news. Another Tesla S caught fire, this time while parked in a garage in Toronto. Reports say the car wasn't plugged in, although it had just returned from a trip. Tesla says it doesn't yet know what started the fire but says it wasn't the battery or any of the other usual suspects.
"The Model S continues to have the best safety track record of any vehicle in the world," Tesla said in a statement, continuing to model its corporate communications on the Beatles' claim of being "more popular than Jesus."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating a couple of earlier fires, a process that can drag on indefinitely. The Toronto fire, like an earlier one in Mexico, is out of NHTSA's jurisdiction.
More popular than ...
While Tesla may not yet be more popular than Jesus, its sales records are, pardon the term, blazing lately, at least in California, the nation's largest auto market and its longtime automotive trend setter.
Tesla was a solid third among luxury car brands in California in 2013, trailing only Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Electric cars sell better in California than anywhere else in the country, partly because of the state's tough clean air laws but also because of a population that attaches a lot of status to anything that's seen as green. Hybrid sales accounted for nearly ten percent of new car sales in California last year, compared to less than four percent nationwide.
In the non-luxury segment, another electrified car -- Toyota's Prius model line -- was the best selling marque in the state last year.
But don't try to buy a Tesla in Ohio. Auto dealers there are getting out the lanterns and pitchforks in their drive to block Tesla's factory store model, pushing legislation that would explicitly block factory-owned stores.
Tesla recently got licenses for stores in Cincinnati and Columbus, sending dealers' mental tachometers into red-line territory.
Tesla currently has a thin network of factory stores, where consumers can go to kick the tires and then order a car if they want, but there is no middleman involved. It's like going to an Apple store and buying a MacBook instead of going to Best Buy and buying an Asus laptop.
Or, like a MacBook, you can just order a Tesla online. Who needs a dealer?
This middleman rub-out is known as disintermediation and is the model most high-tech businesses pursue. Think Amazon, not Barnes & Noble. Disruption, remember?
So far, Tesla has been working state by state to get its nose under the tent, with mixed success. It's a long slog any way you look at it. Nearly every state has a dealer franchise law that needs to be modified or overturned if Tesla stores are to become ubiquitous.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk, not a notably patient fellow, has shown signs of discomfort with the slow progress of the struggle and has said he may seek federal legislation jettisoning those pesky state laws. Or maybe a Supreme Court ruling, if only the courts would work a little more quickly.
That's the one drawback to disruption. The disruptees tend to drag their feet.