Innovations happen more in the supposedly dowdy used-car market than the sexier new-car one.
In part, that's because the used-vehicle world is larger, with roughly four times the volume. That volume has attracted numerous startups eager to sell or finance used cars on smartphones, whether wholesale or retail.
But the innovation edge in used cars also reflects the lack of meddling by automakers. At auctions and in the used-vehicle side of a dealership, anything goes. If a dealer wants to try something that might work better, there are no constraints.
In contrast, any changes on the new-car side of the business must pass muster with the factory. Automaker executives say they are protecting the brand image when they set out rules on facilities, websites and more. That may be true, but their regulations also stifle innovation.
Take inventory management. When ordering new vehicles, dealers must maneuver through every automaker's version of "You want more F series? Order more Fiestas."
Not true for used. That's why sophisticated inventory-management tools, which help stores tailor what's on their lot to local demand and pricing, debuted for used vehicles.
The two giants of the auction world, KAR Auction Services Inc.'s ADESA and Cox Automotive's Manheim, have taken that innovative spirit to heart, investing heavily in new technologies and processes. Their insistence on finding new ways to better serve their customers bodes well for the future of a key part of the automotive ecosystem.
It also should serve as a reminder to automakers that, if left free to experiment, this industry will embrace innovation.