Buying a vehicle needs to become faster and easier, while there’s no longer a doubt when electric and autonomous vehicles will become mainstream options for consumers – just when is the question.

Those were the major conclusions coming out of a panel on future automotive technology in Canada, a panel kickstarted by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne just before she officially helped start the public days of the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto today.

The increasing pace and scale of change in the industry was a dominant theme throughout, with Wynne saying that humans now are stretching if not surpassing their ability to adapt to such changes.

“Who would have predicted that Tesla would be moving 30,000 cars a quarter, and one of them would be on its way to Mars?” asked Wynne. “We’re building EV charging stations across Ontario, we’ve launched the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN) in Stratford, and there are 170 businesses in Ontario now that are teaching cars to think.”

Consumers want quicker, easier car buying

The CEOs of four Canadian automotive OEMs – representing Hyundai, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and Kia – plus Chief Product Officer Edwin Ulak for sat down for the ‘Future in Focus’ panel discussion at CIAS as part of the show’s new Automotive Intelligence Series. Hot topics included how consumers buy cars, or want to buy them in the future, how ready they are for electric vehicles (or not), as well as how increasingly autonomous vehicles may reshape the industry, and likely society at the same time.

Regarding car buying, Ulak noted that both consumers and dealers benefit from the huge amount of research consumers are doing online, and that two-thirds of consumers don’t even reach out to dealers before they arrive. “Eighty-six percent of consumers are doing their primary (car buying) research online, while 69 percent are searching on digital marketplaces,” said Ulak. “We’re the intersection between the cars the dealership and the consumer.”

But he also noted that the industry has to address “pain points” in the buying process, noting that the traditional method takes too long, is too difficult and isn’t transparent enough for many consumers.

Hyundai Canada CEO Don Romano points to the company’s new luxury Genesis brand’s vision of no haggle, no maintenance fees, and will bring vehicles to you to test drive and for warranty visits. The overall goal is to save the luxury customer time as a new vision for customer service, even if it means fewer visits to the dealer.   

“Disruption is happening in the way people acquire products,” said Romano. “People want a different way of transacting – we’ve been selling and servicing cars for 100 years the same way.”

Electric vehicle sales and interest tiny now, but growing quickly

There was more diversity of opinion on electric vehicles, not necessarily on whether they were coming, but in what form, and when.

“To me, the future is definitely electric – there’s no debate on that,” said Joni Paiva, Nissan Canada president, whose parent company has now sold over 300,000 all-electric Leafs, and is a recognized leader in the EV industry. “Ten years ago there was a debate, but today there’s no more debate.”

Among panellists, there was general consensus that electrification will be a major growing trend over the next decade, but the timelines and degree of that electrification varied widely.

For Mercedes-Benz, the company offers various plug-in hybrid models (EVs with a small battery and a gas engine to run the when the battery’s depleted), as well as a low volume Smart ForTwo EV two-seater, and doesn’t plan to have a full Mercedes-Benz EV until the fourth quarter of next year in Canada, said Brian Fulton, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Canada.

“Once the consumer starts to see the infrastructure grow, plus the range will grow to 550 km and 600 in the early 2020s, there will be an increased acceptance of these vehicles, and our planning reflects that,” he said, who notes that by 2022 the company expects 10 models to be fully electric. “By 2025, we expect fully one quarter of all our vehicles, or 25 percent, to be electric or plug-in hybrid.”

In general, Ulak said that searches nationally point to only 0.5 percent of all searches are for plug-in vehicles, or a significantly higher but still small one percent in the province of Quebec. Yes, those numbers have been growing at a huge eight to 10-fold rate, but it’s still a tiny sliver of the market – especially outside Ontario, BC and Quebec, where there are no government EV rebates, and the sales numbers reflect that.

Autonomous vehicles, eventually

In regards to autonomous vehicles, although an increasing number of cars are offering increasingly autonomous features.

“Everyone’s looking for when we’re going to have fully autonomous cars, but there’s so much from a legislation and insurance standpoint to overcome too that’s not in our hands,” said Fulton. “We still have a ways to go, we’re making very good stides, but we’re not there yet.”

Whether or not autonomous vehicles are implemented to increase safety or to sell more vehicles to people who would rather do something else than drive, which was left as an open question, there was certainly consensus that it was on its way, but no one is really sure when that will be in this industry.

“From an OEM perspective, safety for your customers is the number one priority,” said Ted Lancaster, CEO of Kia Canada. “Beyond that, make the cars as connected as they can be so you can manage your everyday life as seamlessly as possible.