Virtual Showrooms, Vehicle Experiences and Test Drives

There is a lot of talk these days about car shopping experience becoming more virtual. At this point in our internet-dependent lives, the shift to digital consumerism is no surprise as e-commerce has grown tremendously over the past few years – 38 percent between 2012 – 2015, and anticipated to grow another 28 percent by 2018. However, the recent opening of a brick and mortar store by Amazon seems to indicate consumers still want to interact with a product in a physical way. So, what is the optimal solution for automakers trying to best engage with their customers and gain brand loyalty? Most likely a multi-channel business model that simplifies the buying process while creating a seamless brand experience.

Today’s car buyers clearly rely on the internet with 88 percent using it as a shopping tool says Autotrader’s 2016 Car Buying Journey.  At the start of the process, 60 percent of car buyers are open to considering multiple vehicle options, which makes this a critical time to engage the consumer and gain brand loyalty. Imagine how much easier it would be to capture the buyer by providing the ability to build, configure options, and select the color of their choice… all before stepping into a showroom. And, let’s go one step further, what if they could take a virtual test drive in their own home?

The Move to Virtual Showrooms
virtual showrooms using digital assets

Although this capability has not yet been made available in today’s living rooms, many automakers are well on their way to enabling these virtual experiences within their showrooms. In 2012, Audi launched the Audi City showroom concept. Referred to as the biggest car dealership in the world with the smallest footprint, it relies upon a totally digital vehicle presentation, allowing visitors to experience the entire model range – several hundred million possible configurations  — including all the colors, equipment/trim options and functions. There are now Audi City locations in London, Beijing, Berlin, and Istanbul. In addition, digital technologies from the Audi City concept will be introduced in about 200 traditional dealerships by the end of 2016 with some employing its Virtual Reality Experience, where shoppers use wearable technology to enter a Virtual Reality showroom.

Pop-up shops, placed in the midst of high traffic areas are also growing. Cadillac has recently opened a high-scale pop-up store called the Lincoln Experience Center at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, California, an upscale outdoor mall. Visitors can sit in a Lincoln vehicle and explore the technology while shipping their favorite tea or coffee. Mercedes Benz has also opened boutique type shops in the UK, enabling shoppers to explore the product range in an immersive digital environment using in-store car configurator tables. It has recently announced it will open kiosk type pop-up shops in India.

In an effort to help cut inventory costs while providing a better consumer experience for customers, Cadillac has recently announced that it will be evaluating its dealerships to find owners willing to move to virtual reality and digital experiences. Those who do adopt the virtual models, however, will still have cars on hand for potential buyers to test drive.

Test Drives Still Clinch the Deal
Despite the increasing virtual showroom world, test drives still play a critical role in finalizing the buying decision. A 2015 AutoTrader study finds that 88 percent of consumers say they will not buy a car without test driving it first. People want to physically interact with the car before making a final decision.

However, the access to digital tools up front plays a big role prior to the dealership visit. A Frost & Sullivan report notes that the number of dealer sales leads coming through digital means is now 50 – 60 percent, compared to only 40 percent in 2014 according to the report. What is happening, however, is that by using digital tools up front in the purchasing process, consumers spend less time at the dealership.  When they do come in, they know they vehicle they want, they can ask for the test drive and finalize the sale.

So, physical showrooms are not going to disappear. However, says Frost & Sullivan’s Neelam Barua, automotive & transportation team leader, “Automakers should be looking out for increased digitization and use of advanced technology, especially modern IT systems that bring together mobile platforms, computing power and interactive solutions in all phases of the car buying lifecycle.”

Leveraging Digital Assets for Virtual Experiences
The move to digitization starts by leveraging the data created in CAD programs by the engineering team. The creation of visual assets from these early stages of product development can help in early product launches, even before products are produced. But, it takes the right tools, the right processes and the right focus. Audi’s web configurator for 12 vehicle models required the creation of over 70,214 components for visualization, which was enabled by 3DEXCITE, a key component of Dassault Systemes’ Virtual Garage industry solution experience.

The process works something like this – once received, the product CAD data needs to be enhanced for visualization. This includes general geometry adding, cleaning of geometry, checking for completeness, and material distribution – basically, anything and everything that is needed to ensure a correct virtual model. An Art Director is required to define the correct look such as nuances of material characteristics, the light setup, flares, reflections, shadows etc. that make up the ideal image.  And, every 3D model is split up into 2D layers, grouped according to configurations and visibility. Every variant of every component is rendered individually, so that later on, various configurations can be combined into layers.

To find out more about leveraging CAD data to improve the speed, quality, and reach of your digital product promotions and customer engagement activities, visit Dassault Systemes’ Virtual Garage.

Nancy Lesinski
Born and raised in the Motor City by a Donna Reed mom and Corvette engineer dad, my parents were continually surprised that their humanities-loving daughter ended up with a career focused on manufacturing and the automotive industry. I’ve been providing communications services to Dassault Systemes since 2001.
Nancy Lesinski
Nancy Lesinski