Ever heard of the Spyker D12 or Mazda Furai? How about the Sony Vision-S, the so-called PlayStation car? They are all concept cars who, despite their hype, will never see the production line. And they are not just sketches on a drawing board. Automakers have spent millions on research, development and prototyping, not to mention the expenditure on displaying these cars at auto shows. And sometimes automakers spend this money with no intention of marketing these models, which at first glance makes little sense.
What is a concept car?
To understand why automakers waste seemingly millions on concept cars, it’s important to first understand what they are.
A concept car is a model created specifically to showcase a new design feature, styling, and/or technology. Automakers show concept cars at auto shows to determine consumer response to these new features. And based on that consumer response, an automaker may or may not include those features in a new edition of an existing model.
Concept cars have been around for decades and despite their long history, most never make it to the market. In a few cases, some have seen limited production runs. But in general, the new function shown in a prototype is taken over in another brand of the car manufacturer.
After a car manufacturer has manufactured and exhibited these cars, he often destroys them. However, some are put into storage while others become a car museum. And some are sold to wealthy private collectors. Most of these cars are not legally operable, so collectors keep them for display purposes only.
Why automakers build concept cars they’ll never sell
Concept cars allow car designers to avoid the risk of bringing a new design feature to market prematurely. For example, suppose a car designer has an idea for a new engine design and incorporates it into the brand’s next-gen offering. In that case, consumer demand may not generate the higher sales needed to offset R&D and manufacturing costs. They could spend a lot of time and money adapting the new design to existing safety regulations, only to lose money because consumers aren’t interested.
On the other hand, when designers show a concept car at an auto show, they can assess consumer response to determine whether the new feature is worth adopting. Reporters from automotive and mainstream business publications may write about exciting concept cars, giving automakers cheap and effective marketing for their unique features. Automakers can also estimate whether consumers are willing to pay a premium for the new features or whether the buzz could generate enough sales to offset higher manufacturing and regulatory costs.
Since concept cars can offset financial risk and generate buzz, it makes sense that many automakers would be willing to spend millions each year on them. After all, if spending six or seven figures on a concept car saves or makes a company millions, the benefits are obvious.
Some of the most famous cars that never hit the market
Even if you’ve never been to a car show, chances are you’ve seen at least one concept car: the 1954 Ford Lincoln Futura. While the Futura never saw mass production, the audience grew far beyond the crowd of car enthusiasts. Twelve years after its debut, it appeared as the Batmobile in the 1966 Batman TV show, where it appeared for viewers for years.
Most concept cars don’t become iconic TV props. But many provide templates for some of the best-selling brands today. For example, the Dodge Viper and Challenger, Jeep Rescue and Prowler, and Lincoln Navigator started out as concept cars, Business Insider reports.
If you’re a car enthusiast, you may be familiar with concept cars like BMW’s 2009 Vision Efficient Dynamics, whose powerful hybrid features eventually made their way into the BMW i8. Or you may have seen the Renault EZ-GO, which offers a possible blueprint for driverless vehicles. And while fully autonomous cars are not yet on the road, multiple manufacturers are working on them.
Today’s concept cars will undoubtedly pave the way for tomorrow’s vehicles. So it’s no wonder that automakers stick to this tried-and-true marketing approach.
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