The autonomous future is indisputably coming to the automotive industry, but it is up to dealers to decide how that impacts the future of the dealership. We've been cautioned with headlines threatening that autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing fleets will result in the death of the dealership, but with major players such as General Motors and Ford jumping into the autonomous game early on, dealers won't be locked out as long as they are willing to start adapting now.
Somewhere along the way, autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing have become one and the same. A picture has been painted that the Waymos, Lyfts and Ubers of the world will wipe out personally owned vehicles with their autonomous ride-sharing fleets, ultimately destroying the dealer franchise retail system. However, a closer look at the situation brings this assertion into question.
In January, GM announced plans to make an autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals by 2019 that will be deployed as a ride-sharing vehicle in a number of cities. Ford recently unveiled its self-driving platform, which includes partnerships with the likes of Lyft, Domino's and Postmates. The fact that GM and Ford are going all in on autonomous vehicles is a good sign for dealers, as the manufacturers likely won't end at ride-sharing and will eventually target the personal ownership market as well.
Despite the high costs associated with the computers and sensors needed to run an autonomous vehicle, these prices will drop just like they did for flat-screen TVs, computers and memory chips.
Even if the change doesn't happen all at once, the tech is likely to catch on, eventually, because autonomous cars will make people's lives easier.
It's likely to follow the same pattern as technologies that have come before. It will start out expensive, a lucky few will be willing (and able) to pay for it, and eventually it will become more mainstream. But with enough time and exposure in the marketplace, the self-driving car has the potential to completely reimagine the traditional automobile.
It's going to take some time before every family on the block has its own robotic chauffeur. But it's time to quash the assertion that autonomous vehicles will begin and end with ride-sharing. Rather, autonomous ride-sharing vehicles are just the first stop on the road to an autonomous future. It is a future where dealers can still be present and integral to the car buying and owning process.
So, what should the auto retail industry do to be ready? The answer: Keep a careful watch on the market and don't discount this technology as a fly-by-night trend. Ultimately, it is up to dealers to ensure that their stores remain relevant for consumers along the road to autonomous vehicles. It's time to take the following steps:
1. Aggressively lobby your OEM to bring autonomous vehicles to market for personal use, sold through dealers.
2. Work on developing long-term relationships with consumers who will be the early adopters for personally owned autonomous vehicles.
3. Ensure that you have the expertise, software and equipment to service the advanced systems of the vehicles.
4. Experiment with vehicle pickup service, remote payment options, evening and nighttime service hours, and subscription-based service offerings.
The advent of autonomous vehicles might be scary. And, it might require dealerships to diversify their stores and related businesses to accommodate significant changes in the industry. But that doesn't mean they can't take advantage of the opportunities that are sure to follow. Like it or not, the autonomous future is coming. And how that future will impact the industry is largely up to the trendsetting OEMs and dealerships of tomorrow.
Dealers' strong presence in local markets gives them a strong position. They must recognize that autonomous vehicles aren't synonymous with ride-sharing and prepare their dealerships to adapt.