A 3-year project supported by the European Commission aims to bring virtual customization of vehicles to dealer showrooms.

The E3.5 million ($4.8 million) Computerized Automotive Technology Reconfiguration System for Mass Customization (CATER) initiative offers would-be car buyers the chance to visualize options and customizations in 3-dimentional high resolution at a dealership via a large wall display, TV or virtual-reality cave.

Developers say the system is a boon for dealers, allowing them to show consumers trim, paint, upholstery and other accessory choices.

“By giving people the chance to immerse themselves in the car in 3-D virtual reality, they can better understand what the options are, how they look, and will feel more confident about making a purchase,” CATER coordinator Manfred Dangelmaier, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering in Germany, says in an EC briefing.

Buyers are able to provide “soft information” about their tastes and feelings, as well as “hard information” about their wants and needs, he adds.

The CATER project, which includes Volvo Car Corp. and Fiat Auto Group as participants, aims to make the system affordable for dealerships, with the hardware, alone, currently costing E10,000-E12,000 ($13,850-$16,625).

As well as boosting vehicle sales, creators say the technology would reduce the number of test-drive models a dealership needs to have on hand, thus saving showroom space. It also would help auto makers in the development process, Dangelmaier says.

“Receiving feedback about customers’ likes and dislikes is essential if extremely costly design mistakes are to be prevented when developing new models.”

Philip Sahyoun, chief technical officer of California-based TKCarsites Inc., a marketing company that uses the Internet to drive more sales to dealerships, agrees virtual systems provide customers with additional confidence.

“It gives a visual help to the consumer,” he says. “Most shoppers want to use their senses before they put down a large amount of money. This raises the comfort level.”

The technology could be beneficial to the vehicle aftermarket business, as well. Vehicle Visuals of Salt Lake City, UT, has developed similar computer simulation visualization technology that allows service advisors to explain to vehicle owners why they need repairs or maintenance.

The system illustrates more than 165 common customer concerns, such as why a timing belt needs to be replaced or the effect of warped brake discs/rotors.

“When you talk to a customer, making them understand why a repair is necessary, you show them an animation and it makes it so much easier,” Vehicle Visuals founder David Lyddall tells Ward’s.