Are the days of test drives num­bered?

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - INDEX -

Most buy­ers of new ve­hi­cles to­day would not con­sider putting down a pay­ment with­out first hav­ing driven the car out of the show­room and road tested it on the sur­round­ing streets. But the ex­plo­sive growth of Vir­tual Re­al­ity (VR) and 360de­gree video is fast pro­vid­ing an al­ter­na­tive to ac­tual test drives.

A new form of ‘try be­fore you buy’ is emerg­ing that doesn’t re­quire the pur­chaser to turn the ig­ni­tion key – or even visit a deal­er­ship.

In the fu­ture, some test drives will be done from the com­fort of liv­ing rooms and bed­rooms. The vir­tual test drive ex­pe­ri­ence of to­mor­row prom­ises to be rich and mul­ti­lay­ered, al­low­ing the buyer to learn far more about the ve­hi­cle and its per­for­mance in dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments than from a drive around the block.

In­stead of start­ing the jour­ney at a deal­er­ship on a sub­ur­ban trad­ing es­tate, the VR test driver can be in­stantly trans­ported to the Big Sur, Alpine hair­pins or their favourite race track.

Last Septem­ber, a vir­tual drive fea­tur­ing for­mer rac­ing driver, Ben Collins, in a BMW 640M went vi­ral thanks to a 360de­gree ex­pe­ri­ence created by a part­ner­ship with technology com­pany Rewind. Cut­tingedge technology stitched to­gether footage from a con­stel­la­tion of cam­eras to pro­vide the im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.

The end re­sult is im­pres­sive on a lap­top or phone, but truly comes into its own if wear­ing a head­set that places the drive in front of your eyes; a 3D jour­ney with a gen­uinely im­mer­sive ride. Such head­sets are al­ready on sale to the public.

Louis Jebb, Founder and CEO of Im­mer­sivly, mak­ers of editorial con­tent in vir­tual re­al­ity, is among those who be­lieves the po­ten­tial use of VR and 360-de­gree video for test drives is enor­mous.

“We can ex­pect the use of lay­ers to de­liver al­ter­na­tive out­comes in 360-de­gree video, as var­ied as in a tra­di­tional com­puter game. In a test-driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence these could in­clude vari­a­tions in route, ter­rain, light and weather con­di­tions.”

These 360-de­gree test drives are shot from cam­eras placed at the driver’s eye­line. For man­u­fac­tur­ers, the lim­it­less na­ture of the VR test drive of­fers huge ad­van­tages over tra­di­tional show­rooms with their high rents and floor space for only a fixed num­ber of ve­hi­cles. The VR test drive will mean that driv­ers can ex­pe­ri­ence new mod­els be­fore they have even reached the show­room.

Ju­lia Saini, Direc­tor of Growth Con­sult­ing for Au­to­mo­tive and Transportation at con­sul­tants Frost & Sul­li­van, pre­dicts that such fa­cil­i­ties in prime lo­ca­tions will trans­form the way cars are tested and sold.

“The halo ef­fect of the dig­i­tal show­room in the heart of the city is ex­pected to drive sales to outer stores and po­ten­tially af­fect deal­er­ship net­work set­ups, both in terms of size and to­tal num­ber of tra­di­tional deal­er­ships,” she says.

Es­tab­lished car man­u­fac­tur­ers are not the only ones ex­plor­ing this space, with some dig­i­tal and technology com­pa­nies also work­ing on cre­at­ing dig­i­tal show­rooms where buy­ers can cus­tomise dream cars from a choice of mil­lions of con­fig­u­ra­tions.

Away from con­sumer test drives, BMW Group has be­come the first car man­u­fac­turer to en­cour­age its en­gi­neers to use VR technology to ‘test drive’ ve­hi­cles dur­ing the de­sign­ing and build­ing process.

The en­gi­neers wear HTC Vive vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets and use high-end com­puter gaming graph­ics to repli­cate mul­ti­ple driv­ing en­vi­ron­ments that help them to iden­tify the op­ti­mum place­ment of com­po­nents and seat­ing with­out leav­ing the fac­tory.

In ad­di­tion to the vis­ual sen­sa­tions, BMW Group em­ploys a re­us­able interior assem­bly to fur­ther en­hance per­cep­tion by pro­duc­ing a mixed re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence. Pre­cise, stereo­scopic acous­tic play­back helps to cre­ate the char­ac­ter­is­tic BMW en­gine sound and in­ten­si­fies the WKH im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.

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