How Auto Dealerships Remain Relevant In The Age Of Self-Driving Cars

Galpin Motors’ Beau Boeckmann says autonomous vehicles will, figuratively and literally, drive consumers to local car dealers.

A day after Uber generated some buzz for its aggressive push into autonomous vehicles by piloting a self-driving Budweiser delivery truck through Colorado, Galpin Motors’ Beau Boeckmann offered a confident vision of what this emerging technology means for the local auto dealership.

Speaking at JD Power’s Automotive Marketing Roundtable at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Boeckmann told attendees that “unless there is some fundamental change in human nature, people will still want to buy a car in person.”

GeoMarketing: Buying a car is often viewed as a “rite of passage” and aside from a home, is one of the most important purchases a consumer makes. During your presentation, you suggested that the rise of autonomous vehicles is not likely to change the dynamic between consumers and dealerships. Is that correct?

Beau Boeckmann: The basic idea is, yes, private ownership will continue to thrive. In fact, the business principals are solidly in place that would allow dealers to not only survive when we go through this monumental change, but to thrive during that.

I would imagine that it would open up the range of car consumers widely. For myself, a life-long NYC resident, I’ve never owned a car. But an autonomous car would be something I might consider…

Well, New York is a little unique; Los Angeles is a little unique too. Those are kind of probably the extremes.

It’s like I talked about; I think there’s always going to be people that will love their cars, and love the automobile. It’s funny, it’s like some doomsayers are arguing, “The better it gets, then people won’t want cars anymore.” I just don’t understand that; it’s like the better it gets, the more people will want it. It’s going to be able to solve, so many issues that we have today. I’m really excited about where things are going.

Beau Boeckmann, president and COO of Galpin Motors Inc., North Hills, CA., speaking at JD Power's Automotive Marketing Roundtable
Beau Boeckmann, president and COO of Galpin Motors Inc., North Hills, CA., speaking at JD Power’s Automotive Marketing Roundtable

Will the rise of autonomous vehicles alter the way dealerships market themselves and engage prospective car buyers?

There are certain needs that won’t change in that dynamic either. It’s funny, because I look at the “experts,” they’re looking at it like it’s going to hurt dealerships by having these unbelievable products. No, it’s going to help us, people are going to want to buy more autonomous vehicles. Your autonomous car could replace an Uber or Lyft for many people. Some people are going to chose to say, “Hey, I’m going to let my autonomous car work for me during the day, just like an Uber driver.” There are going to be some that are going to say, “No, I don’t want anybody else in my car.” It’s going to be a very interesting world.

Do you see a role for ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft at the dealership level? You said that you’ve been trying to reach out to those entities; what sort of conversations would you like to open up with that?

That’s just a simple service for us that we’re looking for. Rather than having these silly shuttle vans, that nobody’s wanted to take for 40 years, people would much prefer to be picked up in an Uber or Lyft. Now people are used to that, so it would make sense.

There is probably going to a little bit of trepidation on some dealerships. If you’re a Lincoln dealer, and they show up in a Cadillac, or if you’re a Ford dealer and the show up in a Chevy, it might cause some disconnect. You would hope you could work with Uber in way and say, “Can we get the Ford drivers out, since we’re a Ford dealership?”

If they can work on things like that, that can be a real service for us. There’s definitely a role that these companies could play today. Uber’s fantastic, I use it myself. In the future, we’ll see what happens; because their business model is going to go through some tremendous changes and challenges as well, and see where they go next.

Looking more at the present state of dealership marketing, what do you think of the way social media is used by local car sellers?

There’s an over-use of social media channels for what I would consider “sale messages.” And if all a dealer is saying on social media, “Hey look how much we sold,” or “Here’s what we’re selling,” it’s a mistake.

First of all, that’s not entertaining. It’s “media,” it’s advertising. Social media is meant to entertain and engage people. You got to enlist the passion of the brand that you represent, no matter what it is; there’s going to be people that are really enthused, and get behind it.

To me, show your own customers what your brand’s doing; become that trusted information source for the customers — don’t let others do it for you.

For us, the silly, simple things really work.

We’re humans, that’s why it’s social media. Not everything is needs a big production, in most cases, it’s probably better with less production. It’s more engaging, when it’s natural.

The rise of autonomous vehicles is emerging from the concept of “on-demand” and e-commerce. Retailers have been particularly impacted by the challenges and benefits there. Have these relatively new ways of shopping impacted the relevancy of the auto dealership?

I’ve hard that argument since the internet came out: people just want to press a button and buy online. And people are still coming in to a dealer to buy the cars.

Someone was telling me about how they were proud that they bought their Tesla on their phone.

I’m like, “Okay, then what did you?”

“Oh, then I went in to the dealership, and I did the paperwork, and that was it.”

They felt like they did it on their phone, but they just committed themselves on the phone. There’s a certain amount of people, I think in that case, it’s someone with enough money that they can take that kind of risk; it’s not going to hurt him if they screwed up.

People who buy a Tesla tend to be wealthy people — we’re not talking about most people. Most people, they still need to see it, touch it, smell it. After that, we’ll see. It’s an ever changing world, and we’ve got to always make sure that we’re listening to customers, make sure we do things the way that they want to do them. There are a lot of advantages to coming into the store. You do need to drive the car, it’s important, cars drive very differently. You do want to see if that does fit well.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.