VR, other tech perks may become crucial to online car-buying

Virtual reality test-drives were available at the eBay Motors booth at the NADA Convention & Expo. Photo by Joe Overby.
NEW ORLEANS - 

Throw on a headset, “test-drive” a car.

In the middle of a convention floor space.

The merging worlds of virtual reality and automotive allowed visitors to the eBay Motors booth at the NADA Convention & Expo last month to do exactly that.

(Well, sort of. It's all virtual, of course).

And while it’s far from a fixture yet, the rapidly expanding online automotive retail space could soon call on such ancillary services as virtual reality test-drives and other amenities to offer a more complete buying experience on the Internet.

“I think all big companies around are looking at artificial intelligence; all of them are looking at virtual reality; what do you do to take this to the next level?” Clayton Stanfield of eBay Motors said during an interview here at the convention. “Because everybody’s talked about, ‘how do you complete this purchase online’?”

And for good reason.

An eBay Advertising study released Thursday says that 63 percent of consumers are either likely or extremely likely to buy a vehicle online in the future. Meanwhile, 87 percent of folks in the survey were going online to research before they buy, the same study said.

“Technology continues to evolve the automotive shopping journey,” Josh Wetzel, who is eBay Advertising’s senior director of sales and marketing, said in a news release that accompanied the study.

“Consumers are already executing pre-purchase activities related to online research with increased interest in online automotive experiences,” Wetzel said. “As more consumers continue to embrace automotive ecommerce for vehicles; enhanced experiences and technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence will continue to drive a larger shift to online purchasing.”

This is certainly not lost on dealers.

Stanfield said many dealerships are looking to see how they can offer a completely online purchase, something that certainly the case 10 years ago.

“I’d go out and do presentations, and they were like, ‘what are you talking about?’” he said.

These days, you can buy a car from the comfort of your home and have it delivered. Or, go pick it up from a “vehicle vending machine,” like the ones online retailer Carvana offers.

“It just shows what the consumer is ready for,” Stanfield said. “And now it’s going to have to go to the next level.”

That could include things like artificial intelligence, VR or 360-degree vehicle views. eBay, for example, offers a “valet” service that will sell your car for you. 

As for VR, 43 percent of respondents in eBay’s Future of Shopping study said they were interested in doing virtual test-drives. (However, just a tenth were interested in using augmented reality during car shopping).

While VR is not part of the services offered on eBay Motors at the moment, Stanfield sees the potential in what in what it could offer online auto retail.

“Most of our buyers see the car for the first time when it’s shipped to their front door,” Stanfield said of eBay Motors. “And we know that there’s still a vast number of people who would say, ‘I would never do that’ … and, so, the virtual reality is going to be that middle ground.”

VR might not “conquer everybody” into online car-buying fans — some folks will still need to physically touch the car before purchasing — but the more complete you can make the online experience, the better, he said.

As for online car-buying, it is still in the “minority,” but as large dealership groups continue to test the waters, the comfort level will go up, he said.

And although VR test-drives are still “a ways away,” Stanfield believes virtual reality will eventually need to be a part of the online car-buying equation.  

The implementation, he said, will likely be go from newer cars to older.

“It will take a long time for virtual reality, probably, to hit those private-party cars,” Stanfield said. However, he adds, “to say it’s not going to happen would be silly.”

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