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5 promising changes for the car buying experience

Posted by Bill Griffith  January 10, 2012 05:21 PM

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Most of you who are reading this follow the automotive world at least to some extent.

You see the trends: more variations of hybrids, smaller and more efficient gasoline engines, turbochargers, diesels, and electric vehicles. You read about not only the “connected” vehicle but also the research that seems to be leading us to the autonomous “driverless vehicle.”

One thing seems certain: As Village Automotive Group president Ray Ciccolo told me two years ago during the depths of the economic recession: “It will be the automotive industry that drives recovery.”

In the “Old Days,” that industry was big enough domestically to get the job done on its own. Now, with global supply chains and more efficient plans, it probably can’t do it all, but it’s trying hard.

Back at the turn of the century—and that still seems like a strange term—there were 17.3 million vehicle sales annual in the United States. That number dropped to 10.4 million in 2009, rising to 11.6 million last year and to above 12.5 million in 2011, a number that analysts expect would have been higher had it not been for the tsunami and earthquake in Japan and floods in Thailand. Those events seriously curtailed production by Toyota, Honda, and to a lesser degree, Nissan.

The most optimistic forecast for 2012 is for sales to top 14 million units here at home. Scott Corwin and Brian Collie, partners at Booz & Company, a Global management consulting firm, says that consumers will continue to have a big say in the recovery.

“The US market is the most attractive and open to competition in the world,” says Corwin. “There will be great choices available for the foreseeable future. To paraphrase Alfred Sloan, there will be a car for every person and purpose and across many companies’ lines.”

Corwin’s work generally is aimed at manufacturers, suppliers, and financial services but he also sees five areas of interest for consumers.

Technical innovation. “All companies are hedging their bets. It’s almost like 100 years ago before the internal combustion engine emerged as the power plant of choice. Twenty years from now, we may look back at this period as the foundation of change. Consumers are very rational. They understand they are buying a capital asset, even though their emotional side may opt for the yellow, two-door version. They understand the costs, fuel economy figures, retained value, and need for a vehicle to meet their needs,” says Corwin.

“Right now costs are so high for plug-ins and full electrics that they only make sense with tax incentives,” says Collie. “It will take honing in on the eventual drivetrains of choice to get the volume that will bring down the costs.”

The connected vehicle. “There are an awful lot of microchips in a vehicle and unbelievable things going on like passive braking and accident anticipation,” says Corwin. “The real question is whether we will move to autonomous driving where the vehicle does a lot of things for us. The other side of this is that people still love driving—when they’re not stuck in traffic.

Return of the domestics.
“They’ve come back faster and stronger than anyone expected,” says Corwin of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. “The consumer perception of the American vehicle has increased dramatically, and it’s directly tied to the quality of their vehicles.”

The customer experience. “Manufacturers especially want to change negative perceptions of the sales-shopping-ownership experience,” says Corwin. “The OEMs can provide the high quality, reliability, and durability. But they don’t own the dealerships. The downturn got everyone back to fundamentals. The goal again became to meet the consumer’s needs with a competitive product at a good price.”

How people approach driving. “The traditional method is the 36-month lease or five-year car loan, and they’re still very much with us,” says Corwin. “but there’s an increasing group that would prefer to rent a vehicle by the hour or mile. Systems like OnStar and RelayRides in San Francisco allow people to rent out their cars. A lot of the Millenial age group want personal transportation but don’t want to own one. It may be that we’ll have a system so people can have the car they want when they want it and how they want it.”

All-in-all, it promises to be an interesting ride.

Bill Griffith can be reached at wgriffith@globe.com.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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