Buying a car the painless way - via a smartphone app

NEW YORK • These days, you can book plane tickets, buy appliances, pay for college and even schedule surgery with a few swipes and keystrokes on a smartphone.

Buying a car is another matter.

It retains much of the same analogue agony as before: the haggling, the hours at the dealership, the gnawing worry of the fees, charges and rates behind the transaction.

But progress is being made.

The latest step forward in the United States comes from AutoGravity, a start-up in Irvine, California, whose smartphone app for auto financing is gaining traction.

The app allows consumers to apply for and obtain approval for auto financing in a matter of minutes, and is accepted at thousands of dealers across the country.

It has been downloaded more than 500,000 times via the Apple and Android app stores.

Last month, Volkswagen's credit arm bought a stake in AutoGravity for a reported US$30 million (S$40 million). That follows an equity investment by Daimler, parent of Mercedes-Benz, in February.

AutoGravity started as a project within Daimler's financing arm and was set up as an independent company in 2015.

The app addresses one of the most tedious steps in the car-purchasing process - waiting around, sometimes for hours, while the dealer tries to line up a loan.

Americans borrowed an average of US$30,689 to buy new cars last month.

Individual banks also make it possible to apply for loans by smartphone or online.

AutoGravity, however, generates loan offers from up to four institutions, allowing users to compare rates, payments and costs.

People can also shop for cars, browse the inventory of dealers in their area and compare prices on the app.

After homing in on the car they want, users can apply for a loan.

A few months ago, Ms Lisa Harrington, a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, was shopping for a new car. An acquaintance suggested she give AutoGravity a try.

"Even as an executive who negotiates for a living, it can be daunting," she said. "It really isn't easy, especially for women by themselves."

She decided on a Mercedes-Benz GLE. The app let her check the models at a dealership, Fletcher Jones Motorcars, near her home in Newport Beach, California.

From home, she used the app to apply for credit and then went to the dealership with the lease financing already lined up.

At the showroom, she merely picked out the colour and trim level of the GLE she wanted.

Ms Harrington, 49, said: "I didn't want to deal with being in the dealership for a thousand hours and this was definitely the most painless purchase I've had buying a car."

Car dealers need to look for "ways of making ourselves more visual and ways of bringing in the younger generation", said Mr Keith May, president of Fletcher Jones.

Having an app geared towards how younger consumers shop "gets us into their stream of consciousness", he added.

More advances are coming.

Mercedes-Benz Financial Services has developed technology that reduces the documents a buyer must review and sign before getting the keys to a new car.

A few dealerships in Texas and Florida have started presenting documents in electronic form instead of paper, said Mr Geoff Robertson, a vice-president at the company. "The dealer shows them everything on a screen and the customer gives one electronic signature that is populated on all the documents," he added.

Instead of a folder with photocopies, the customer leaves with a thumb drive with the purchase receipt and other "paperwork".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2017, with the headline 'Buying a car the painless way - via a smartphone app'. Print Edition | Subscribe