September 27, 2012

Audi Gives Us A Different Kind of “Test-Drive”

Imagine walking into an auto dealership that didn’t have any automobiles.  Imagine sitting down in a black leather bucket seat, surrounded only by LED screens – but still somehow looking into a dashboard and out of a windshield.  What if you could reach out, push a button and “start” the car, turn up the music, feel the A/C blow onto your hands?  What if you could “lift” the hood and hear the engine run?

Audi just took a big step towards this type of showroom experience.  The first Audi virtual showroom opened in London for the Olympics.  When you walk into their virtual showroom, you will not be greeted with physical cars – instead, you’ll come across large touchscreens where you can select your preferred Audi options.  From there, your car will be displayed on the wall – yes, the entire wall.  You’ll have the ability to customize your car and purchase it right there – a more enjoyable experience than most of us are used to at a car showroom full of salesmen.  

Our take:  Audi is simply the first to the dance when it comes to virtual showrooms.  With rural population reaching an all-time low in America these past couple years (approaching <15%), and metropolitan areas becoming more and more popular, real estate is becoming more scarce and expensive in population dense areas.  In 2008 an average lot size for an auto dealership was 21,000 sqft (dated, I know, but I don’t think lot sizes have changed significantly since).  While one of Audi’s virtual dealerships only take a couple thousand sqft of real estate.  Other automobile manufacturers will follow closely behind as this type of retail outlet is not only extremely engaging, but it is also cost effective in reducing overhead and salaries of traditional showrooms in highly dense metropolitan areas.

So, how does Audi take it to the next level and give an incredible customer experience?  It’s not easy, but the technology does exist.  You might ask how one would be able to “start” the virtual car, or “lift” the virtual hood.  But in reality, gesture recognition isn’t all that new, it’s been around for several years.

However, its applications are growing immensely.  Kinect, is the clear leader here – and I’m sure Audi would love them in their showrooms.  And I even know of a community that could develop the program:

*cough* Kinect Hacks *cough*

Moving even further down the innovation spectrum – what if your contact’s messages, weather updates, and road conditions could be displayed to you on your windshield?  How is that for hands free?  Think it’s impossible?  Think again, Mercedes Benz is already on the way.

What about a huge screen to increase user interaction (I’m a guy, no screen is TOO big)?  Imagine having the ability to dive into the engine, see the pistons, explore the transmission.  South Korea’s “Live Park” gives us a great example of large-scale interaction.  I think Audi (and other auto manufacturers should take note).

And let’s not skip the basics.  App development has only begun to scratch the surface.  What if you could track all of your driving data from your mobile device?  See where your family’s cars are? Aggregate and collaborate with the social world for the best repair prices?  Look for manufacturers to ramp up these types of applications in an effort to have a better data set and more engaging relationship with the customer.  After all, until now, the dealerships have owned the customer data; this gives the customers to the brand.  Ford is already doing a great job of this.

However, what if one of these automobile manufacturers could create an app that allows customers to track usage of an entire family’s vehicles regardless of make?  It may sound strange at first; why would you want to support another brand’s car usage?  But think of all the data they would have access to:  “Hey, Mr. Smith, we see that your Camry is getting 25mpg; our 2013 Fusion can outperform that.”  Talk about targeted marketing that a manufacturer couldn’t execute prior to the advent of mobile applications.  A little upfront altruism will tell you an awful lot in a short period of time.

If you are interested in a deeper perspective on the future of auto and apps, here’s one from a friend of ours:  @kalgyimesi who owns industrial and automotive thought leadership for IBM’s Institute for Business Value.

What do you see in the future of automotive retail?  Let me know in the comments.