The relationship between dealers and automakers has often been fraught with friction, with automakers essentially occupying the driver's seat.
But a true partnership might emerge in a not-too-distant future shaped by the disruptive forces of technology and growing competition.
A report commissioned by the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association offers a picture of what automotive retailing could look like by 2030.
The study, titled "Driving the Road Ahead," says key trends — such as the emergence of electric vehicles, virtual car shopping and financing, and the rise of ride-hailing and other alternatives to individual car ownership — will accelerate.
Automakers, meanwhile, will be "in for the fight of their lives." They will be more preoccupied than ever with the capital-intensive demands of stringent fuel economy standards; electric, connected and self-driving technologies; as well as China's and India's entry into the North American new-vehicle market.
This creates an opportunity for dealers to come up with new ways to do what they do best: sell vehicles and services to customers.
"A fully engaged dealer network can ensure that some of the responsive pressure experienced by brands might be shared," the report says, "allowing brands to focus on what they are good at ... designing and assembling great vehicles and building strong brands.
"Focus on brand-to-consumer initiatives is a complete distraction. ... Dealers collectively can be an integral part of the solution instead of being targeted as the problem."
The report urges dealers to diversify their revenue streams and forge partnerships with other players, including rivals, to develop services that respond to evolving customer needs and wants.
"No longer can dealers go it alone, only to stand by and witness their penetration levels slide in key business units," the report says.
Continuing dealership consolidation means auto groups will expand — a trend that will facilitate the ability to launch new businesses.
Despite coming changes, franchised dealers are in the best position to build and maintain relationships with customers. And automakers, which have dictated everything from image programs to terms governing vehicle allocation and incentives, will depend more on dealers to reshape the customer service model.
The future, said CADA President John White, will see dealers continuing to play an important yet changing role in the new automotive retailing ecosystem.
"At the end of the day, don't have all your eggs in one basket with one business, one [automaker], one market, one of everything," White told Automotive News Canada. "You've got to diversify in some way, shape or form."
And, as the report says, "It's time for dealers to switch the narrative."