Why VR is a game-changer for the motor industry

Whether it’s two people designing a car from opposite ends of the earth, or buying a car from your lounge, VR is shaking up the automotive landscape.

Both VR and AR have made seismic waves in the motor industry, impacting on everything from car design, to brand awareness, to the buying process. Some are even hailing its introduction as the death of the car showroom, but I wouldn’t be so hasty – Autotrader’s recent Car Buyer of the Future study found that 88% of shoppers would not buy a car unless they took it for a test drive, which suggests some form of showroom will remain necessary for some time to come.

Concept creation using a VR lab

Let’s start from the beginning – designing the car. Back in 2013, Ford became the first car manufacturer to use an ultra high-definition VR lab that enables designers and engineers based in different locations around the world to work together on vehicles in real time. They can see full-scale 3D images, as well as inside and even through the vehicle to its mechanics and structure. The virtual experience is almost indistinguishable from a real vehicle.

For example, when working on the Ford Mustang using VR technology, craftsmanship engineers amended the fit and finish of the Mustang’s dashboard and windshield wipers so that the wipers are hidden from the driver’s view when they are at rest, allowing the engineers to create a sleeker look.


Successful implimentation in the automotive industry

Another successful use of VR in the automotive industry has been to raise brand awareness through what is almost the gamification of driving experiences. In 2015, Renault did this to great effect, using a 360-degree video to simulate a lap of the Renault Clio Cup, giving unprecedented insight into what it’s like to drive a race car. While most drivers don’t aspire to such extreme driving, transporting consumers into a new world is a memorable experience inextricably linked to the Renault brand.

On a more serious note, Toyota created TeenDrive365 in 2015, an Oculus Rift VR experience aiming to teach teenagers about dangerous driving. The user is placed in a Toyota on a busy street and has to drive safely while listening to the radio, being distracted by friends talking at you, receiving text messages, etc. Giving VR a useful, educational slant while also promoting the brand is a great use of the technology.


Oculus Rift and VR apps

By far the most groundbreaking use of VR in the motor industry has been in the customer buying journey.

In 2014, Rewind created what was apparently the world’s first interactive VR car simulator using the Oculus Rift DK2 headset for the launch of the Lexus NX. The user was immersed in a virtual world where they could configure every aspect of an NX to their own specification and then take it on a test drive.

Since then, many car companies have followed suit, and not just for fancy launch events.

In their showrooms, Audi has been rolling out a new VR system, also using Oculus Rift. Similar to the Lexus NX experience, shoppers can customise the Audi they want and view the car inside and out from a first-person perspective. VR is also being used in dealerships so shoppers can see their chosen specifications (colour, interior fabrics, dashboard display, etc.) before confirming their purchase.

However, you can now have a look at a prospective new car without even leaving your home.

Volvo’s VR app puts the user behind the wheel of their XC90 model, simply using their phone and the low-cost Google Cardboard. They can see the car interiors, look out of the windows and drive.

Excitingly, this also means brands can launch VR experiences of cars and reach a large number of people with them before the car is even in the showrooms and without customers having to leave their house.

The future of VR within the motor industry

All of this essentially adds up to a more informed car buyer. Car manufacturers are reaching out to an increasingly digitally-driven audience on their mobile devices. In March 2016, Luth Research found that one woman had more than 900 digital interactions with various brands, showrooms and reviews before buying her car, showing how important it is for car manufacturers to have engaging and informative digital content across multiple touchpoints. By the time consumers get to the dealership for that all-important test drive, they are clued up and armed with key questions for the salespeople. This means interaction with people is still important, so how does VR fit in with this?

For 2017, it seems there will be fusion of AR and VR with mixed reality, such as that offered by Microsoft’s HoloLens. HoloLens allows people to interact with holograms, moving and shaping them within the real world. The mixed reality can include a virtual car, customisable by the potential buyer, and a physical salesperson to answer their questions. Microsoft says this prevents the brand from losing the customer to VR, where the customer’s vision is completely closed and those important sales messages are less easily communicated.

Volvo is already working with Microsoft’s HoloLens, though it hasn’t been launched in stores yet.

From concept creation to car purchase, VR is already changing the way the motor industry works and looks set to change the way consumers work with the motor industry. The smartest brands won’t treat VR in isolation but integrate it into carefully choreographed customer journeys.