由艾伦•马斯科投资的电动汽车制造商特斯拉汽车公司（Tesla Motors）已经开始在官网上接受Model S的订单了，这款车型的起价为7万美元。这些车辆既可以运到这家公司拥有的30家商店里，也可以直接运到消费者的家门口。显然特斯拉并不怕挑战法律和传统。特斯拉公司的发言人莎娜•亨德里克斯说：“德克萨斯州的法律禁止厂商把汽车直接运到消费者家里，所以我们是通过第三方这样做的。我们并不是说我们永远都不需要经销商，但就眼下来说，那种模式对我们没有意义。”
密歇根州大布兰克市的Al Serra Auto Plaza汽车行的网络总监杰夫•琼斯表示，他的公司正在与通用汽车公司（General Motors）合作进行一项试点项目。用户可以访问通用官网来在线“制造”一辆车及其相关配置，但最后一步、也就是交易的过程仍然在经销商的门店里进行。他说：“要确保购车者的确具有贷款的资格，以及他是否选择了适合他的车型，人的因素仍然是必要的。”
For a century or so, the shopping ritual at dealer showrooms for new and used vehicles hasn't changed much, apart from more comfortable chairs and the addition of latte machines.
But the Internet is unraveling the essence of new-car retailing, arming shoppers with more information than ever about features and prices, as well as expert reviews. Will shoppers soon be able to take the next step and order new cars online, like books, laptops and shoes?
The debate over Internet vehicle sales rages, since automakers see it as a way to slash distribution costs by hundreds, and perhaps a few thousand dollars per vehicle. Dealers are aghast: They have shielded their franchises in every state with legislation. Many view Internet sales as a means of undermining them. Dealers assert that "cars aren't books or shoes" and are best sold in person by their sales staff, a process that allows the shopper to test the vehicle, as well as explore financing and trade-ins.
Tesla Motors (TSLA), the groundbreaking electric-vehicle manufacturer founded by Elon Musk, takes orders for its Model S sedan, which starts at $70,000, on its website. The cars are delivered either at one of its 30 company-owned stores or can be drop-shipped to a buyer's home. Tesla, clearly, is bucking law and tradition. "In Texas, where the law precludes delivering directly to customers, we do so through third-parties," said Shanna Hendriks, a Tesla spokesperson. "We're not saying we'll never have dealers; but that model doesn't make sense for us now.
Seth Berkowitz, president and chief operating officer of Edmunds.com, said "the current franchise system makes it difficult to imagine a time when consumers can order new cars online completely separate from a specific showroom experience." Berkowitz said Edmunds is offering a feature that would allow shoppers to know exactly what a specific car will cost before they come to the dealership.
Because the market for used cars isn't protected by new-car franchise laws, it may provide a more promising opportunity for online vehicle sales. eBay Motors, a division of eBay (EBAY), offers thousands of vehicles online for sales between private parties. Many used-car dealers also use the digital platform and pay a listing fee.
Carvana, a venture sponsored by DriveTime, one the nation's largest used-car operations, has begun selling late-model used premium and luxury models on its own website. Carvana operates for the time being only in Atlanta and its environs but hopes to expand nationwide. "What we've learned from our early experience is that shoppers like our on-line tools and money-back guarantee," said Ernie Garcia Jr., Carvana's chief executive officer. Barely in business for eight months, Carvana declines to specify how many vehicles it has sold, except to say that the rate is accelerating.
Garcia did say that the first hundred vehicles sold by Carvana reflect what he called a "promising" trend of high satisfaction among buyers. Four buyers of the first hundred weren't satisfied with their purchase and exercised their right to trade the vehicles they bought for another. Only one of the hundred demanded a refund.
Garcia said that sales of new and used vehicles at dealerships, in the conventional manner, reflect about "$2,000 a car" in sales, general and administrative cost. He regards that amount as margin that can and will eventually shrink as online attracts more vehicle shoppers.
Jeff Jones, Internet director for Al Serra Auto Plaza, a new-car dealer in Grand Blanc, Michigan, said his company is cooperating in an on-line pilot program with General Motors (GM). Visitors to GM websites can "build" a vehicle and equipment online -- the last step, the transaction, takes place at the dealership. "It still takes a human element to make sure the customer is eligible for financing and to see if the customer is choosing the right vehicle for him or her," said Jones.
New-vehicle sales online haven't arrived, and perhaps may never. Yet that day feels as though it's drawing closer, especially for consumers who will choose anything and everything -- including a spouse -- using keypad or mouse.