By on August 10, 2020

With large hunks of the nation still under varying degrees of pandemic-related restrictions and accompanying panic, auto dealerships haven’t been awash with customers. Many that did reopen have been forced to follow distancing guidelines, frequently limiting the number of people allowed on the premises. Hoping to avoid closing permanently and relinquishing ownership to the bank, they’ve come up with some interesting solutions to keep their clientele interested.

Virtual test drives aren’t exactly new, but they have become an increasingly popular avenue for dealerships hoping to drum up business in 2020. While we’ve seen salespeople giving tours of new product as they hit the lot for years, on-board video is typically reserved for independent review purposes. That’s largely because nobody really expects a fair assessment from the person selling the vehicle. However, with in-person test drives becoming quite difficult, showrooms want to exercise every option they have to draw in customers.

You may not be able to feel the car for yourself and make mental notes on the physical experience, but stores think they can give you just enough info to make you want to take the next step. This isn’t necessarily a substitution for test drives (though we’re sure it will be for less thorough shoppers). It’s just the best alternative the industry can muster at present.

Multiple dealers along the East Coast have told us they’ve seen increased viewership of their video walk-arounds over the past few months. This was especially true of storefronts specializing in higher-end product. According to Automotive News, the phenomenon isn’t isolated to coastal areas or fancy-pants nameplates. Dealerships across the nation are seeing increased online traffic and have attempted to improve the virtual experience, apparently to great effect — at least anecdotally.

From AN:

Dealerships that have added virtual test drives to their online repertoires in recent years suddenly have a unique connection point to shoppers during a health crisis, adding an interactive element to online research. Panoramic videos from production company FlowFound allow viewers to look around the cabins on their mobile devices or computers during the presentations and get a firsthand glimpse at how technologies such as adaptive cruise control work in real-world conditions.

Stores such as Gwinnett Place Honda were ahead of the curve with the 360-degree videos, deploying the digital showcases several years ago as a perk to make their websites a better resource for prospective consumers. The COVID-19 outbreak has increased the importance of these videos at a time when some shoppers are hesitant to visit showrooms and has sparked a rush of stores that are adopting the technology.

Nick Cybela, FlowFound’s CEO, said sales jumped 600 percent at the onset of the pandemic. He foresees the crisis inducing a mass adoption of video technology in general, not just for virtual test drives. Cybela said the videos need to be executed well to be beneficial to dealerships.

The aforementioned Gwinnett Place, located near Atlanta, offers individuals visiting its website an opportunity to sit beside sales people as they take the latest Honda vehicles on a tour of the surrounding area. While dealers may mention how the model drives or feels on the road, much of the experience focuses upon the latest and greatest features offered by the manufacturer. These items are often accompanied by visual aids to draw additional attention while customers make use of the 360-degree view to look around the cabin remotely. The clips are frequently shared on social media to help draw as many eyes as possible and redirect them to the dealership’s homepage.

Danika Windom, Gwinnett Place’s marketing director, stopped short of saying it actually helped sell more vehicles, but noted that it has helped the site gain some attention and keeps the sales staff occupied. “Our consultants like being in front of the camera to assist themselves in getting customers,” Windom told Automotive News. “It helped generate some leads.”

With numerous dealerships under the impression that online sales will be essential in the coming years, virtual test drives may become an essential aspect of doing business. However, we’re not sure it’ll become a lynchpin for sales. Despite AN suggesting these companies are seeing major increases in traffic during the pandemic, walk-around videos don’t seem to be gaining much traction on YouTube — with most shops lucky to get more than 50 views per clip. Totally replacing an actual test drive with a virtual experience sounds unlikely, as there’s only so much that can be conveyed through a screen. Yet a polished video with loads of information may help viewers in making a final decision, funneling them toward a specific dealer.

Some outfits remain fairly optimistic on the strategy.

“From the comfort of their couch, they can virtually test drive that vehicle,” said Kevin Frye, marketing director for the Midwest-based Jeff Wyler Automotive Group. “It is definitely going to be a contributing factor to more 100 percent online sales in the future. But we’re still seeing even with people doing that, they’re going to come in and test drive physically if they can. But it’s a very forward-thinking concept.”
[Image: Pop Paul-Catalin/Shutterstock]
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26 Comments on “Could Virtual Test Drives Transform the Car-buying Experience?...”

  • avatar

    To heck with virtual test drives – maybe try having competently executed photography in greater than postage stamp sizes with better than previous-century resolution and color quality, displayed with usable interfaces rather than in minuscule carousels that constantly auto-switch between images regardless of input, try to create vertigo-inducing virtual turntables, or interrupt you in the middle of looking at an image to beg for your email address and then back you out of the image sequence?

    It sounds crazy but it just might work.

  • avatar

    The average new car price tag is north of $40k. I don’t care how much virtual testing is available, I still want to get behind the wheel and determine if the vehicle meets my needs. Does it rattle, is the radio overly difficult to work, is the A/C strong enough for life in the humid Deep South, do the pictures on line match the color of the car in real sun light, etc, etc, etc. No real time on the highway behind the wheel, no purchase!!

  • avatar

    No, we can set-up the whole deal online, but before I sign I’m going for a test drive and I don’t need you in the car for that, so we’re both safe

    Oh, and if I do decide to buy the paperwork should take 20 minutes, so don’t try and d!ck me around for 3 hours

    Stay safe :)

    • 0 avatar

      Delighted to say my last car purchase took 15 minutes. It would have been 10 minutes, but I let them talk to be about extended warranties.

      I’m afraid to buy another car, cause I know it’ll never be that easy again.

  • avatar

    I think it is defintely a way to get people into the showroom. In the real estate industry virtual tours are now the norm once you cross a certain price point. I haven’t heard of large numbers of homes going under contract w/o the purchaser actually visiting the house but they are using it to weed out certain homes and reduce the number they visit in person.

    So yeah I can see virtual test drives becoming a shopping tool many expect, but again I doubt significant will make a commitment based only on a virtual test drive.

  • avatar

    Personally I would never buy a car without driving it, but given how little people care about handling I could see the average soccer mom buying a vehicle after a virtual test drive.

    Each car’s steering, suspension, brake and throttle all feel different. When my wife was shopping for her last car we drove a Benz and immediately hated it. The seats were like rocks, the suspension too stiff, steering too soft and floaty while the gas pedal required a gym membership to push. 5 mins into the test drive she wanted nothing to do with it regardless of price or badge.

    Overall I don’t trust online simulations (or approximations?) of vehicles as I’ve noticed the OEMs have switched to CGI generated images, especially for exteriors. The Ranger is a prime example of this. Online the truck sits level but in the real world the rear is a good 4″ higher. Same goes for my C7 Corvette. Official GM images show the wheels nicely tucked into the wheel wells, but in reality the car has 2″ more gap in the fenders. The wheel offset is also misrepresented as the true OEM setup is more sunk then flush. These things are super minor but once you notice it you can’t un-see it. Thus I need to see things in the flesh.

  • avatar

    It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    I simply cannot fathom what a “virtual” test drive does for anybody… It sounds like nothing more than the latest idiotic marketing gimmick.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I don’t see much difference between a ‘virtual’ test drive and a video review using a strategically-mounted GoPro. I can get that now.

    Neither will tell me about the ergonomics or the quality details of the vehicle I’m actually “driving”.

    I cancelled my Model 3 reservation after 2 years, in part because it looked like my number might come up before I could actually test drive one. Once I did test drive one, I still passed – and a new reason (among many) was that center display.

  • avatar

    To the extent that a “virtual test drive” is a truly accurate simulation of the real thing, all “fun” cars are doomed. Might as well get a cheap, effortless, rolling living room; when you want a “fun” drive just visit the holodeck.

  • avatar

    I did buy my ’05 F-150 without a test drive, but I guess pickups aren’t like cars. Except I did sit in it for a couple hours while we negotiated, and the salesman went back and forth “asking” the manager, and probably made some calls too. I really liked the seats and figured the rest would be fine.

    I still really like them, I’ve slept in the driver’s and passenger seat numerous times, no problem. I’ve drove it for up to 20 hours straight with zero body fatigue, arriving as fresh as a (sleepy) daisy.

    I actually wore them out and replaced them with fresh/low miles seats from an XLT. Same seats, a little fancier cloth.

    So that’s why I don’t understand owners that can’t stand the seats in their cars. And they didn’t notice the horrible seats on the test drive? Or the spin around the block? Maybe that’s why. Anyone can sit on a bus bench or curb for 5 minutes.

  • avatar

    If dealership is on another (than Earth) planet – I am all for virtual test drive. But if it is just 10-30 minutes from my home – then I demand hands on experience with full 3D immersion.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I could see the value in a virtual showing of a vehicle with all its features but I will not buy any vehicle without sitting in it and driving it. What would really be good is to be able to order a new vehicle from a selection of trims, colors, and options without having to go thru a salesperson. At least having a choice even if it is limited.

  • avatar

    The best way to ever test drive a car you’re going to purchase is to rent one for a week.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Good point to rent a vehicle before buying one.

    • 0 avatar

      Some dealers will let you do extended test drives.

      For my C7 I test drove 3 of them because the first dealer would only allow me to drive around the block. I told him I needed some highway miles and they said no way. OK then no sale. This was a used car so racking up another 40 miles wasn’t going to hurt its value. I then found a dealer that allowed to actually DRIVE the darn thing. He threw me the keys and told me to have a good time, just be back before lunch. So the wife and I drove it for nearly 2 hours.

      I had a similar experience years ago with a Mitsubishi Eclipse GS-T. After a quick test drive I wasn’t feeling it. So I went back and asked for a longer experience. I purposely drove the car home and then to work to simulate my commute as those were roads I was very familiar with.

      • 0 avatar

        There has been kvetching about some Hyundai/Kia dealers not permitting test drives on certain hot cars like the Veloster N. I don’t see how they expect to sell them.

  • avatar

    Test drive is critical. My wife and I have turned down several cars/SUVs over the years even though the pictures were great and the prices were right. The driving itself was bad. And that was only by the 15” salesman in the car test drive. I imagine that renting a similar year/trim level for a day or so will be the new minimum experience needed for a brand to get my dollars.

  • avatar

    Not at all…

    I can sit in a car and love it, then actually drive it and hate the way it drives/feels/sounds. There were several Mitsubishi cars I loved, (early/mid ’00s Galant/Diamante) but I could not get comfortable in them at all. Some cars I thought were great, but visibility was horrendous.

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