Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Test Drive? Not for much longer.

Test driving the car of your dreams may soon be a thing of the past. Not that it’s an experience I have a car-load of experience with, but I’ll miss it nonetheless.

Un-American as it may well be to admit, I’ve never been much of a car owner. I’ve lived, worked, and gone to school in cities. The great thing about cities – if you pick your spots right – is that in a lot of them you don’t need a car. In my mid-thirties, I got my first car when the company where I was working upped stakes from on-the-Red-Line Cambridge to off-the-public-transpo-grid Lexington. That first car was a used Honda Civic, a 1981 I think, that I bought from a colleague. I don’t think I test drove it. I just gave her a check for $2K and took possession.

The car was from the era when Civics were complete rust buckets. The color: dirty white with authentic rust accents. The car had 52,000 miles on it, and got me where I had to go, which was to Lexington and, later on, to Lowell. But it got rustier by the day. Then the driver-side door permanently locked, so I had to use the passenger side door, humping over the gear-shift to get me into the driver seat. And then it started to give out, making a terrible noise when I was in fourth gear.

Emergency: I had to get a car. A new car. I went to Pride Lincoln Mercury and test drove my Mercury Tracer on the Lynnway. It was an enjoyable experience to drive a car that you could shift with ease, and that didn’t require you to stomp on the clutch to get it in. My friends Peter and Tony drove me to the dealership – it wasn’t clear that my car would make it - and Tony (speaking Greek to the salesman) negotiated the deal, which got me $100 on the trade-in for my Civic, sight-unseen. The next day, my Civic chugged its way to the dealership, never making it out of third gear. (In fourth, it definitely sounded like it was going to blow apart.) When I got to the lot, the car choked and died. The sales guy told me that, if he’d seen the car, the trade-in value would have been zero. But I had my first ever new car, and had had my first ever test drive.

But we’re entering the era of the no test drive, no showroom car buying experience, big time.

Cadillac, it seems:

…has plans to replace showrooms with physical vehicles on-site to ones with virtual reality headsets for customers to use, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Cadillac’s president Johan de Nysschen will reportedly soon ask store owners to commit to switching to the virtual reality headset model. At the revamped showrooms, customers can learn about new products with the headsets. (Source: Fortune)

It’s not clear whether these headsets will provide info-only, or whether they’ll also allow people to do a test-drive a la Flight Simulator. But surely that’s where it’s going. With all the technology around today, it’s certainly going to be possible to simulate everything, from the dashboard right down to that wonderful new-car smell, and the feel of fine Corinthian leather – or whatever luxe material they use for the seats in Cadillacs. 

I find it pretty interesting that it’s Cadillac going this route, rather than some hip, young-skewing brand. Can’t you just picture Uncle Arthur in his fly-boy sunglasses and Sans-a-belt pants putting on his headset and virtually test driving his new Caddie? Of course, my image of the Cadillac driver is an old geezer, when in real life the average Cadillac owner is probably my age. (Which I guess makes them old geezers. Sigh…) Which means that they are not likely to be technologically-averse. Unlike the ancient Uncle Arthur of my Caddie-driving imagining.

Whether this approach backfires on the Cadillac demographic or not, it’s pretty clear that the test drive will be yet another experience of the past.

After I left Wang for another job on the Red Line in Cambridge, I sold my car through an ad in the Want Advertiser. I can’t remember if the guy test-drove it or not. I was just happy to once again be car-free.

Then that Red Line company re-lo’d to Burlington. So once again I needed a car.

This led to my second (and probably final) test drive, and the purchase of my second (and probably final) new car. That car was a New Beetle, purchased in 1998 when they were the Next New Thing.

I test drove a Newbie just to get the feel of it, but that test drive wasn’t necessary at all. For me, the New Beetle was love at first sight. Who needed love at first test drive? All that Baby Boomer nostalgia, plus a flower vase. What’s not the love?

I had to get on a wait list to get that car, and I bought a blue one, even though I’d never even seen a picture or sample of what that blue looked like. I had some nervousness about whether the color would be an ugly reflex blue, but it was quite pretty. i enjoyed that car but, once again, once I no longer needed it to commute, I got rid of it. Volunteers of America came and hauled it away, and I got a tax deduction.

Pay phones. Newspapers. Test drives. Yet another thing to miss, even though you don’t actually need them.

But life goes on. Driving does, too, until the self-driving car renders the entire thing obsolete. Guess we’ll have to settle for virtual test rides.

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