Every part of everyday life was disrupted in 2020. It was a trying year, even for the luckiest of us. We wanted to find out how people in the various corners of the auto industry managed the challenges, how they adapted, and how the lessons learned this year might carry forward and change the way cars are designed, serviced, sold, and toyed with in the years to come.
Ralph Gilles: Head of Design, FCA
For many people with desk jobs, the transition to working from home was logistically simple. Not so for car designers. “Have you ever been to a HazMat day?” FCA head of design Ralph Gilles (pictured above) asked us, as he described the day when designers came to the company’s design office to have their “very, very expensive” design equipment deposited in the trunks of their cars by the waiting IT staff.
Home offices sorted, Gilles had to figure out how to recreate a collaborative work environment. Gilles says his team leaders set up regular virtual coffee or happy hour meetings with their staffs. “Without having an agenda, you were able to just discuss open-mindedly,” Gilles says. He even thinks the designers’ work is improving. “You put a drawing on a wall with a bunch of other drawings, yours can blend in.” But now that each designer presents ideas to the group individually, people want their sketches to shine.
Those sketches have, inevitably, been influenced by the pandemic. Gilles says the staff now spends more time thinking about how to make a car easy to clean, how to improve filtration, and how to incorporate antimicrobial materials like copper into their interiors.
It’ll be years before we see the fruits of those labors. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to look forward to. Gilles is looking forward to some “very significant” new vehicle launches in 2021.
MICHAEL BUTTS: Sales Consultant, Jake Sweeney Automotive, Burlington, Kentucky
When new car sales cratered during the first COVID restrictions, the dealership Michael Butts worked at laid off its entire sales staff. Butts landed another dealer sales job over the summer, and he’s adapted to a new relationship with clients in a profession that has relied on close personal interaction.
“I was always taught ‘Sell in your seat, not on your feet,'” he said. But even after lockdowns ended, some potential buyers wouldn’t even speak over the phone, but only text, and some who’d bought cars wouldn’t enter the dealership until they needed to sign paperwork. “It was kind of hard to change my approach,” Butts said, “to have the customer engaged with me but never have them in person.”
COVID affected every aspect of the sales process, large and small. Butts said the dealership now keeps cars in the showroom locked, “That way, not a lot of people are touching them and getting in and out.” Moving the pre-sales process online compelled dealers to divulge numbers early or risk losing a sale, and obliged customers to show interest up front and set appointments they’re more inclined to keep. As new vehicle sales recovered, the auction market remained hindered by distancing and sanitizing constraints, limiting the supply of quality pre-owned vehicles.
New technologies and processes have enhanced the buying experience for both parties, and Butts believes they’ll stick around. “I think this could be a good thing for the car industry,” he said. “Now we are tailoring each experience that the customer has.”
RICH BENOIT: YouTube’s “Rich Rebuilds”
In 2015, ex-IT guy Rich Benoit combined two Tesla Model S wrecks into one daily-driver Model S. That effort turned him into a full-time YouTuber known as Rich Rebuilds, while continued skirmishes with Tesla corporate bestowed such notoriety that Vice called him “The Rogue Mechanic.” Andrew Lawrence profiled Benoit in our September issue.
For a guy like Benoit, travel restrictions were the worst kinds of constraints. “I get energy from talking to people, being around people,” he said. “2020 definitely sucked a lot of my energy away because I couldn’t do those things.”
After taking two cars to SEMA last year, he planned to expand his presence this year. “I wanted to do more car shows in general,” he said. “I build these projects, I want to show more people what I can do and also inspire a younger generation of tinkerers and say, ‘Hey, you could do this, too. I don’t have any experience … [if] you just follow first principles, you could have some really awesome stuff if you’re into it.'”
He’s moved on from his Tesla focus, so for 2021, anything goes. He recently announced an LS V8 swap into a Model S, but there’s also an electric Mini Cooper, he just bought a Sherp, and “I bought a diesel truck that I want to make faster in the quarter mile than my BMW i8.”
Benoit’s philosophical about this year’s challenges, though. “I still have my health and strength, so worked out all right. If December 31 rolls around and I’m not dead, I guess it wasn’t that bad.”
Andrew Creech: General Manager Honda Morristown and Morristown Chevrolet, Morristown, Tennessee
A dealership’s service department is just as important as sales, if not more so. “Traditionally,” Andrew Creech said, “a customer pulls in, asks you to take a look at their vehicle, sits in the lobby, and waits for the car.” But Creech’s facilities combined service 1900 vehicles every month. Social distancing and limited lobby space compelled the creation of concierge and digital services one expects from luxury brands.
“It’s all based on customer comfort,” Creech said, “so you might have one customer that’s comfortable with staying [in the store] with the vehicle.” For those who aren’t, a dealer employee drives a loaner vehicle to the customer, sanitizes it, then drives the customer’s vehicle back for service. Creech said a technician records a video of “who they are, what they’re looking at on the vehicle, then … what is the repair, why you need it, and this is what [the repair] looks like after we’ve corrected the issue.” The customer can watch the video, approve fixes, pay digitally, and have their car returned the after repair.
His dealerships don’t charge for the additional convenience, and customers love it. “Even the ones that didn’t elect to take the service were thrilled that it’s available if needed,” he said. He believes such services were on the way but didn’t think the industry could have pulled off the rapid overhaul “without the pressures of covid.”
Asked when he thinks the dealer service industry will return to pre-pandemic days, he replied, “I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to how things were in 2019. I think we’re going to go from here and [ask] … how do we make our facilities and our experience focus around the needs of the consumer.”
Aaron Richardet: Owner/Founder Osprey Motors
Global automakers faced a seemingly insurmountable set of challenges this year. But things weren’t any easier for the little guys. Take Osprey Motors, a shop in coastal North Carolina that builds custom Defenders. Osprey relies on crate engines from General Motors, but GM’s warehouse workers were on volunteer status this spring, and Osprey struggled to get parts. “Something that we should have had shipped in a day or two turned into weeks. It’s aggravating,” Richardet told us.
A small shop means a small workforce, so when employees had to take time off following possible coronavirus exposures, things slowed down significantly. Richardet estimates Osprey lost a month of production to staff quarantines. This all came as the company was recovering from production hurdles related to a strike at General Motors last fall. “That ended in, what, October? And then[…]four months later, five months later we’re dealing with COVID,” Richardet recalled.
Still, it’s not all bad. Osprey’s clientele is wealthy and likely to have escaped the worst economic effects of the pandemic. When we spoke to Richardet, he said his team of 15 had 22 vehicles in the works. Richardet says his clients can have anything they want. “But they picked me, and they picked my product. It’s a great honor.”
Frank Weber: Head of Development and board member, BMW
Frank Weber, one of the engineers behind the Chevrolet Volt and head of development at BMW, is an R&D guy at heart, so while the rest of us have been focused on positivity rates and vaccine schedules, he’s been thinking about the future. Which, for BMW, is electric. But don’t expect the shift to happen overnight. “Transforming from combustion engine industry to an electric dominated industry will take a long time,” Weber told us during the launch of the BMW iX. He warned against the “craze” for bigger batteries and more electric range. “It doesn’t serve the customer and it doesn’t serve us,” he said. “In the end, you’ll see 500-600 km [310-370 miles] of range serving the vast majority of customers.”
Weber’s employer takes the long view, too. Asked if any R&D projects had been scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic, Weber told us that BMW has one rule when it comes to navigating a crisis: “Never sacrifice your future.” So as the pandemic unfolded, the company adapted “overnight” to allow large portions of its workforce to do their jobs from home and developed a set of rules to govern the behavior of those who had to be on-site. “It’s a bit exhausting, but it’s working,” Weber said. The company hasn’t had to change a single development deadline as a result of the pandemic.
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