Turn on, tune in, drop out

‘Tis the season to be buying stuff, and so far, 2016 is looking like it’s pushing virtual reality headsets as the number one hot ticket item. But unlike a Tickle Me Elmo (oh God, I’m old), VR tech has a very real potential to upend a variety of well-established industries, including the automotive space. There’s no way to know for sure what’ll happen until VR hits the mainstream in a major way, but in the interim, we can put on our collective thinking caps and do a little chin scratching.

If we were to guess, VR will probably benefit the car world in some ways, while hampering it in others. The net effect most likely won’t fall definitively on either side of the fence – rather, the technology will simply change the industry, transforming it in potentially unexpected ways.

Of course, what follows is little more than a few educated guesses. Got some insight of your own? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Continue reading for our take on how virtual reality will affect the car world.

How Will Virtual Reality Affect The Car World?

The Car Buying Experience

How Will Virtual Reality Affect The Car World?
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These days, the car buying experience is pretty well established – do some research online, maybe hit up an auto show, poke around the local dealers, take a few test drives, negotiate with the salesperson, then take the plunge and write the check. Virtual reality could potentially change all of that.

Imagine this – you slip on your VR headset and plop down on your force feedback couch, outfitted with a steering wheel and pedals. After firing up your preferred test drive program, you load whatever model you’re thinking of buying, then go for a virtual drive around town. The simulated landscape could mirror the route you take on your daily commute, letting you hear the ambient sound inside the cabin, the feeling of the suspension over the asphalt, the power under your right foot. You could even load up the local racetrack and see what it’s like to really push it to the limit, all without fear of an excursion and subsequent impromptu purchase.

If you like what you see, you could simply buy the car online and have it delivered straight to your driveway.

Don’t have the cash for an expensive at-home rig? No problem – the dealership will. In fact, Jaguar Land Rover is already working towards exactly that, giving buyers a chance to check out models in a variety of colors and trim levels, even if the models aren’t physically on the lot.

This is bad news for the auto show. If you can download an experience, what’s the point of seeing something in the metal?

Of course, we’re still a ways off from the abovementioned scenario, but so far, we seem to be sailing towards a whole new car buying experience.

Auto Customization And Personalization

BMW Brings New M Performance Parts To Essen Motor Show
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I’m a huge fan of car customization, but adding aftermarket goodies to your ride can often be frustrating and expensive. Sometimes it just doesn’t fit right, or the color doesn’t match, or it didn’t come out the way you intended. Virtual reality could solve a lot of that, and open up the possibilities for further personalized touches.

Body shops of the future could scan your ride and give you a chance to tweak and tune in a virtual environment before a single wrench is turned, letting you perfect your dream car to exacting detail. Paint choice, body kits, wheel selection, ride height, interior layout – all of it could be digitally rendered beforehand.

Throw in some at-home additive manufacturing (a.k.a. 3D printing), and any DIY’er out there could build his or her perfect car in the comfort of their garage, all without directly hitting up some third party manufacturer.

Designers And Engineers

Just as consumers can use VR to make a custom bumper, professional car designers and engineers could use the tech to make their jobs a whole lot easier. Rather than working from a rotating CAD image on a screen, these folks could walk around a life-sized digital representation and tweak it in real time, event taking it for a virtual test drive before building it in real life.

Travel

This one is a bit of a stretch, but it’s possible virtual reality will diminish the desire to travel, thus hurting demand for cars. After all, if you can experience a place without actually going there, what’s the point of leaving your house?

Of course, this is all dependent on how good the tech is at recreating a certain experience. For example, if you can’t feel the warmth of the sun or the sand between your toes, a virtual beach isn’t really gonna cut it. That said, finding a simulated parking spot or getting stung by a simulated jellyfish wouldn’t be an issue, either.

Racing

Lamborghini CEO Shoots Down Formula One Entry
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From casual gaming to top-tier training, virtual reality is becoming more and more integrated in modern motorsport (check out my complete breakdown of driving simulators here).

But beyond the pro drivers and weekend warriors, virtual reality could potentially change the fundamentals of racing itself, offering incredible entertainment straight from the pages of science fiction.

Here’s one scenario – a collection of menacing four-wheeled machines take the grid, each sporting enormous aerodynamics and sponsor-heavy graphics. The lights go green and the cars lurch forward, tires screeching, engines booming and spitting fire.

Immediately, fenders are bent and bodywork is torn as competitors jockey for position heading into Turn 1. But rather than bending left or right, the first corner bends up – it’s a loop, curving into the sky in a sideways U shape. The cars are now traveling at speed upside down, the aero fighting against the pull of gravity. Bent wings spell disaster, and damaged cars without enough downforce to keep them glued to the track plummet back to Earth.

The frontrunners start to outdistance the rest of the pack. The leader decides now is the time to reveal the ace up its sleeve, and with the push of a button, a rear-facing hatch slides open to reveal spiked mines that tumble out onto the track. The cars behind juke and twist around the new threat, revealing weaponry of their own. Suddenly, a rocket sizzles forward, meeting the exhaust of the leader, blowing the rear half of the car into a spray of carbon-fiber shards. A new car takes the lead.

Okay, so maybe I got a little carried away there, but my point is this – if you take the human element out of racing using offsite virtual reality controls (think military drone operators), you can get pretty creative with the entertainment factor. I’m imagining BattleBots and Robosaurus mashed together with Formula 1 and NASCAR.

What do you think?
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