Sep 03, 2013

    Carmakers show and tell with apps

    CARMAKERS trying to reach young buyers face a conundrum: How do they sell a car to people who stay away from a showroom?

    "They won't come into the stores to educate themselves," said Mr Peter Chung, general manager of Magic Toyota and Scion in Washington. "They'll do that online."

    More than half of the younger buyers polled by, a car-buying site, said they wanted to avoid interacting with dealership sales representatives. In response, carmakers like Toyota and Cadillac are starting to use technology that tries to take the showroom to the buyer.

    Known as augmented reality, it embeds images and videos in a picture on the user's smartphone or tablet. The result is a far more detailed view of the image, often in 3-D with added layers of information.

    For example, when Cadillac introduced its ATS model last year, it created a campaign in cities across the country that allowed observers to point an iPad at a chalk mural and watch the car drive through scenes like China's mountainous Guoliang Tunnel and Monaco's Grand Prix circuit.

    Later, Cadillac added the technology to its print advertising, pointing readers to download the brand's smartphone app to view a 3-D model of the car. The app allows users to zoom in on the car and turn it 360 degrees by swiping their finger across the screen.

    Cadillac's social-media manager, Ms Arianna Kughn, said: "It's obviously different than going to a dealership, but at least it's enough to engage with the vehicle in an environment where customers are comfortable."

    Audi has used the technology in its brochures and instruction manuals, while Toyota added it to a campaign with a Japanese computer-generated pop star, Hatsune Miku, to interest a younger audience in its 2012 Corolla and to increase the number of downloads of the carmaker's shopping app.

    Specular Theory, based in Venice Beach, is using Hollywood production techniques to create renderings that allow users to virtually open the doors of a car, peer inside and roam around, or take a test drive, merely by running their fingers over a phone or tablet screen.

    Founder Morris May is applying the expertise he developed over 20 years as a graphic designer on movies like Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones and Spider-Man 2 to redefine how people view cars in the showroom, online and via mobile devices.

    At the root of the interest among carmakers is the wish to reach young buyers who spend a lot of time looking at images of cars online, said Mr Stephen Gandee, vice-president for mobile and emerging technologies at, a car-buying site.

    "(It's) the emotional side of shopping - you can't beat pictures," said Mr Gandee, who is overseeing the redesign of's site to try to capture more of the emotional and visual appeal of the car-buying experience. He said the site expected to have its own augmented-reality prototype by next year.

    Many younger buyers no longer even test-drive a car before buying it, said Mr Chung.

    Instead, they read reviews and add features to their vehicle online before going to the dealership with the exact model and price they expect, shown on their smartphone.

    "The consumer is no longer coming in and looking at 10 colours. They've seen all 10 colours online and know what they want," he said.