Just a few clicks on a website, and the deal is struck. The customer has chosen his perfect model, with the right engine, cabin specification, color, safety options - and tailored finance deal - all without speaking to a salesman or moving from his desk.
His order information has been instantaneously transmitted from the manufacturer's website to suppliers, logistics partners and to the assembly plant. It is rapidly processed so that - just two weeks after confirmation of the order on the Internet - the car is delivered to his door. It is a unique vehicle, with a completely original combination of equipment and specification.
Trouble is, at the moment, such a system is only a dream for many car manufacturers. It represents a future where customers are guaranteed a uniformly excellent service and a uniquely specified car, wherever they are. Stocking costs are no longer an issue, and overcapacity becomes a thing of the past as factories build cars to order.
But it's a dream that is gradually getting nearer, as each manufacturer develops its own Internet strategy. Ford is nearer than most after launching a new pilot scheme in Canada where the customer can order a car over the web direct from Ford. The pilot is the result of Ford joining up with IT partner Trilogy to develop and operate customer-facing websites on a worldwide basis.
Initially, the service - called ConsumerConnect - is limited to the purchase of three models: the Focus, Taurus or Windstar.
It's seen as a first step toward build-toorder manufacturing. The ConsumerConnect system will enter customer web orders for specially-configured vehicles directly into the order bank at the manufacturing plant. Cars in the plant's 90-day schedule of vehicles will be tagged for those web customers and altered to meet specific customers' demands.
However, those customers not prepared to wait a predicted period of 'several weeks' for their new cars will still have the option of buying a made-to-stock model over the web. The website will search the inventory available at dealerships, and offer the customer the vehicle that matches his or her specifications most closely.
Of course, people have been buying cars from dealers and intermediaries over the Internet for a few years, but online purchasing direct from the manufacturer is much more innovative. Particularly when it promises to supply customers with their chosen model from mainstream, volume ranges, which normally have huge option lists.
'As many as 20 million option configurations are on offer with the Taurus,' said Chris Porch, CEO of the joint venture Ford has set up with Trilogy.
'The customer, of course, never sees the options that come into play when he selects his car. What he sees is an engaging, easy-to-use screen.
'Each choice that the consumer makes on the screen has a ripple effect. It causes hundreds of items of data to be changed.'
The automatic processing of the data behind the screen is handled by powerful software known as a product configurator.
To give the customer the instantaneous response to his selections that is vital to the success of any website, the product configurator has to be highly efficient and extremely fast. Porch claims the configurator that Trilogy has brought to the joint venture incorporates an engine that is the best on the market.
'With this technology, we can handle millions of hits a day on a single website, without it getting overloaded,' he said.
Porch is hoping that eventually the configurator will help Ford build the cars that its customers actually want to buy, by capturing true unfiltered customer demand from the Internet.
'The Internet gets the customer to say, 1/8Here is the vehicle I want.' If we can take that unfiltered information and pass it back to manufacturing, planning, and back to the supply base, then we'll be able to align the mix of products we are building more closely to the demands of the customer,' he said.
This needs to happen across a series of volume-model ranges - either by introducing a more complex IT package, or by cutting the number of configurations available on popular cars dramatically.
Moves are already under way within Ford develop a more sophisticated configurator. The system is due to come on stream for 2002 model lines.
'This is the real key to true build-to-order manufacturing,' said Porch. Ford's goal is to achieve a vehicle delivery time of two weeks or under which compares to a current average of six to eight weeks in the USA.
Product simplicity is also being addressed by automakers. Even if the 20 million options on a Taurus is higher than most, the number of configurations for the average North American car is still many millions, Porch estimates.
Ford knows it has to reduce the number of options dramatically. It has set a target of 1-2 million per car, although this is still not as low as the typical Japanese car, which has fewer than a million configurations.