Space Cars on Wisconsin Roads


Earlier this month you may have heard that the most powerful rocket in recent history, the Falcon Heavy, capable of carrying more than twice the weight of any rocket in use today, was successfully launched. The only thing that got more buzz than the rocket itself was the image of its successfully delivered payload. Instead of monkeys named Albert or zero-gravity experiments, post-launch images show a bright red Tesla Roadster, the first car in space, floating effortlessly, the earth looming large in the background. Behind the wheel, a mannequin dressed in an astronaut suit casually rests his hand on the convertible’s side and the dash reads “Don’t Panic” as the vehicle flies at seven miles per second toward the asteroid belt.


While a Tesla in space generated worldwide buzz, closer to home, the possibility of Teslas in Wisconsin are turning heads in the State Capitol. Electric cars like those manufactured by Tesla aren’t new to Wisconsin. In fact, more than 500 Wisconsinites own vehicles that run solely on electricity instead of gasoline. Last fall, 60 of those owners converged on the Capitol, inviting members of the public and legislators out of the building to take a drive in an electric car and learn about a new piece of legislation.


At just one sentence long, Senate Bill 717 is one of the shortest bills being considered in the legislature this session. It targets what electric car owners and enthusiasts see as a growing issue – a state law that forbids manufacturers from selling cars directly to consumers.  In a world where consumers can buy everything from iPhones, pizza and farmer’s market produce, not to mention Hawg Wobblers, directly from those who make them, the need for a bill allowing direct sales of cars by manufacturers to consumers might be a surprise, but, with cars the story is a little more complicated. 


In the 1920’s and 30’s, car manufacturers began to rely heavily on partnerships with local businesspeople to sell cars through franchise dealerships. Franchise owners would invest significant amounts of money to build a dealership and purchase their inventory. Once franchises became widely established, a legal framework was created to protect these local investments from being undercut by direct-to-consumer sales. As a result, cars can’t be bought directly from the manufacturer, not even electric cars like Teslas, which have no franchises. This means that Wisconsinites who want to buy a Tesla have to travel to Illinois, Minnesota or another state that allows the direct sale of electric cars.


This past month, a public hearing was held on the bill, again drawing a host of electric car drivers. Under the bill, a manufacturer that makes only electric cars could establish dealerships, paving the way for electric car companies to sell their cars here in Wisconsin, while leaving the sale of combustion engine vehicles unchanged. Though similar bills have been passed in 23 states, the proposed change is not without its critics as both manufacturers and dealership owners have expressed concerns about changes to the current system.


Fueled by the appeal of zero emissions and minimal maintenance compared to a traditional combustion engine, the popularity of electric vehicles is likely to continue to grow. Tesla notes that in Wisconsin there are 1,500 people who have put down a $1,000 deposit to reserve the latest Tesla model. According to the US Department of Energy, Wisconsin has more than 250 electric vehicle charging stations available to the public with more being built every year.


So, as the first car in space fades out of view, the fate of electric car sales in Wisconsin is also hidden. But, even if we don’t see an electric car dealership pop up nearby, scientists predict that we will see a bright red Tesla Roadster passing by earth around 2091.