Automakers are accumulating consumer choice data that could make assembly operations more efficient in the future, Ward’s has learned.

Karenann Terrell, director of DaimlerChrysler Corp.’s e-Connect Platform, says they have a formal process to use data from the 78,000 new vehicle quotes they receive from potential customers a month to try to predict sales cycles.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co.’s dealer-led e-tail enterprise is examining buyer preferences derived from its Web site orders to anticipate demand for specific vehicle configurations. Reliable information about customer preferences could reduce assembly complexity, eliminating unpopular features and assist the automaker’s co-ordination of parts deliveries from suppliers, says Devon Cohen, chief executive of FordDirect.

“If I see a spike in particular types of vehicle configurations (online), the hypothesis is that it will translate into a spike in demand 30 days from now, or 50 days from now. Ford is starting to use this data, drawing correlations between configurations and sales,” says Mr. Cohen.

Because FordDirect went online less than a year ago, interpretation is incomplete. “We’re just now getting through data analysis.” And changes to assembly are still far down the road.

Visitors to the FordDirect Web site remain anonymous. The company uses “clickstream analysis” to tracks the movements of Web site visitors but not their personal information. Privacy preservation, a spokeswoman says, “is paramount for us.”

At DCC, Ms. Terrell says their analysis is based on information on prospective buyers who give their name and address to the dealer. The carmaker is working to correlate the requests for price quotes with actual purchases to determine how well it represents the sales cycle. If it does, it can provide invaluable real-time data for tracking sales, which is a moving target. The next step is using the data to help plan vehicle production.

Even more valuable, says Ms. Terrell, is the ability to ascertain future purchasing habits -- feedback from the person planning to buy a minivan in three years as opposed to the customer who just bought one. Ms. Terrell says DCC is trying to figure out how to gather the information without being too intrusive.

“In the next 12 to 18 months, all OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will try to leverage technology to do that.”

J.D. Power says more than half of today’s prospective auto buyers research vehicles online. Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen says FordDirect.com is the largest single lead provider for Ford dealers, accounting for about 1,000 sales a month,

Ms. Terrell says 55% of their consumers go to the Internet as their first point of contact in the buying process. o