When Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014, some regarded it as a mistake. In fact, virtual reality (VR) was likened to the 3D televisions that famously had flopped out of the electronics market in 2010. Six short years later, however, VR headsets are available from the world’s leading electronics brands and virtual reality is finding use in a variety of applications, from gaming to training firefighters. It turns out that VR is far from a flop; it has the potential to revolutionize entire industries—including the automotive industry.
In the automotive industry, virtual reality could change everything. VR car design, market research, and car sales open up new possibilities for how vehicles are made, how they’re marketed, and how they end up in the hands of consumers. Virtual reality is still in its infancy, yet it is already transforming the world of cars.
VR MAKES AUTOMOTIVE DESIGN FASTER AND MORE COST-EFFECTIVE
The first thing that typically comes to mind when considering VR is gaming and entertainment. But the true strength of virtual reality is the ability to realize concepts in a realistic and immersive environment—a quality with widespread applicability. In the automotive industry, it allows designers to go from a three-dimensional file on a computer to walking around a design nearly instantly.
Historically, designers have had to wait for an artist to sculpt their vision into clay to get an idea of how their designs worked in the real world—a process that would have taken several days to weeks. If there was a flaw or a design detail didn’t translate well to real life, the whole process had to restart from the beginning. With virtual reality, however, designers can translate designs on a page into full-scale mock-ups at the click of a button. And they can do so over and over until they produce the right design—or several strong variants—to bring to prototyping. Results are more refined and thoroughly developed, paving the way for better vehicles.
However, virtual reality doesn’t just facilitate better designs; it can also help automakers realize significant cost and time savings. Whereas automakers have historically paid artists and sculptors to make models over the course of days or weeks, virtual models can be altered in seconds—or even in real time. Creating and modifying VR models saves much of the time, materials, and labor costs of reworking models and helps ensure that only the best designs make it to full-scale production.
VIRTUAL CAR CLINICS STRENGTHEN DESIGNS WITH DATA
It’s common across industries to solicit the opinions and input of the target market to then design and refine products. In the automotive industry, this primarily happens via car clinics in which customers are shown a range of models and asked for their input. This practice can strengthen a manufacturer’s model lineup by helping them understand customers’ preferred features and must-have specifications. With this data, manufacturers can tailor their offerings to capture more market share.
However, car clinics tend to be limited in their utility for two reasons. First, it is expensive. Transporting vehicles to different locations is costly, and a large venue like an arena or convention space is typically needed to house them while the clinic is conducted. Additionally, the clinic needs to be staffed by market research experts, many of whom must be flown in from distant locations. The cost of transportation, staffing, and venues limits the number of markets in which car clinics can be conducted, who can attend, and how many times it can be held. The result is a data collection constrained process, and the resulting small sample sizes can skew data in ways that limit its applicability.
Virtual car clinics, on the other hand, have no such drawbacks. Because the car models are virtual, there is no need to transport vehicles or rent large venues. Staffing needs are drastically cut, and the only travel expenses are for those who are running the clinic—and perhaps a checked bag of VR headsets. This significantly reduces the costs and geographical limitations that often hinder conventional clinics. Because virtual car clinics can be held virtually anywhere, they can also solicit consumer opinion of more cars, from a larger group of consumers, and across wider geographic regions. In fact, it’s conceivable for car clinics to take place in every major market across the US simultaneously, more—and more meaningful—data.
VIRTUAL SHOWROOMS CREATE BETTER BUYING EXPERIENCES
While virtual reality has the potential to revolutionize the car design process, it can also transform the way consumers buy those cars. Indeed, many in the industry believe that virtual reality may be the next frontier in car shopping.
Car buyers typically love parts of the shopping process and many look forward to browsing available vehicles online, thinking about possibilities, and taking test drives. What they find less enthralling is traveling from dealership to dealership, listening to sales pitches, and spending hours finalizing their purchase. And according to Cox Automotive, that sentiment is increasing year after year.
Virtual reality gives dealership groups the opportunity to cater to buyer preferences while simultaneously expanding their reach. VR sales presentations offer the opportunity to create in-depth, immersive, experiential buying experiences that car shoppers can enjoy from the comfort of their homes. It also allows dealership groups to bring all of their inventory to customer’s homes near any one of their locations—even if the models they are interested in aren’t on their local dealer’s lots.
But virtual reality sales experiences aren’t limited to customers’ homes. In the dealership, a VR experience allows salespeople to show customers all available vehicles, even if those vehicles aren’t on the lot. If customers are interested in a car but don’t like the color, a dealer can show them the full range of colors available through a VR headset. Similarly, if a customer is on the fence about a vehicle because their desired trim isn’t in the showroom, VR allows them to interactively explore the trim level of their choice. This is just one of many sales techniques that can be developed through virtual reality automotive training.
FOR THE AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY, VIRTUAL REALITY IS THE FUTURE
In many ways, the future of the automotive industry is already here. In others, the changes have only just begun. In the automotive industry, virtual reality is a transformative technology that is on par with the personal computer or the internet in its potential for changing the way vehicles are designed, built, and purchased. And automotive businesses from manufacturers to car dealerships have only just begun using this technology. While it’s hard to predict all of the potential advantages of incorporating VR into these business models, history suggests that they may indeed be great.