Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia)

Are the days of test drives numbered?


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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