Technology in the driving seat

Most motorists know engine management systems control their car engines, but few can be aware of the growing influence of information technology on how they buy and sell their cars and how it is now possible to track the precise location of any company car at any moment.

Detailed, updated information on every vehicle registered in the UK, complete with a thorough ownership history, is sold every quarter by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea to data management agencies. Name and address details are excluded to prevent their use for direct marketing but by matching ownership patterns to postcode sectors (typically 320 households), it allows marketers to identify optimum locations for car dealerships, repair centres and related businesses.

Car owners planning to advertise in Auto Trader will not even enjoy the benefit of anonymity. From this summer, list brokers will be able to buy comprehensive information about who has booked the 140,000 advertisements appearing each week. Buyers and dealers will also be able to use the central database, with an inquiry about "who is selling a Renault Laguna in Lincolnshire for between pounds 8,000 and pounds 9,000?" bringing a list of phone numbers.

New technologies are used for advertising new cars, too. Rover, Nissan and Churchill Insurance collaborated on a trial using "Auto-Select" interactive kiosks in locations ranging from shopping centres to hospital canteens. Men aged 25-35 proved particularly willing to use the touch screens to gather and enter information and provided valuable insights into the marketing potential of the Touchpoint terminals to be installed around the UK by British Telecom.

Less direct in their impact but broader in their reach are computer programs distributed by manufacturers such as Vauxhall and BMW, to provide constant reminders of their products. Most sought-after is the Porsche Boxster program featuring action footage of the sports car. Its impact has been massive, with a million copies distributed already.

Car Shop plans to serve an ever greater potential audience by linking interactive kiosks with digital satellite television. Users will be able to identify cars meeting their requirements and call up video footage. If they want further information, a brochure request will be dispatched to the nearest dealer, together with an insight into the inquirer's priorities.

Other manufacturers are examining the potential for self-contained units in locations such as shopping centres and airports. As well as displaying a real car and associated merchandise in a glass container, these units will incorporate touch-sensitive screens so viewers can call up footage or request a test drive.

Having attracted potential customers into showrooms, manufacturers such as Rover, BMW, Volvo and Daewoo are keen to make computer terminals part of the "purchase experience". Users can create moving images of customised models, as well as calculate the cost of the vehicle or explore any element of the interior or exterior. Ford's plans go even further, with the installation of virtual reality equipment - complete with head units - to enable potential buyers to "drive" cars in the showroom.

Perhaps most intriguing, 15 Mercedes-Benz dealers have introduced video links in place of specialist sales staff. Customers wishing to discuss finance options communicate with staff in Milton Keynes.

From the same premises, a sister company, Debis, runs another development - a "trade only" online auction of used cars, with each lot appearing on screen for no longer than 60 seconds. The scheme has proved successful and Debis has begun to handle bigger lots, with fleet owners able to dispose of 10 or 20 near identical vehicles at a time.

Most chilling of all developments, however, for company car users, at least, is the new vehicle communications system developed by Technical Telecommunications International. Designed to optimise fleet efficiency, eliminate incorrect deliveries and provide unparalleled vehicle security, the system uses units installed on vehicles and software on standard PCs which allow the location to be tracked in real time to an accuracy of 50 metres. Your can almost hear the words now: "What do you mean, 'you were stuck in a traffic jam?' Our records show that you were at the Red Lion for an hour and 18 minutes ..."

David Sumner Smith











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