The removal of block exemption and growing vehicle sales via the Internet will give logistics specialists the opportunity to play a leading role in delivering direct to the consumer.
Richard Lawson, senior vice president for inland logistics for the Scandinavian Willenius Wilhelmsen company, said future changes include tracking cargo throughout the supply line - from manufacturer to the end consumer.
'The dealer concept may not remain in the way we know, particularly if block exemption is removed,' he said.
Block exemption is the law that allows carmakers to control their distribution networks in Europe.
'This [the removal of block exemption] will open the door further for dot.com companies and provide further opportunity for the manufacturer to deal direct,' Lawson said.
'With the web, even the consumer can track where his car is in the supply chain. OEMs will take responsibility for the life cycle of a car, controlling everything from the new-car sale to the residuals and recycling.'
Bringing down order-to-delivery times is still some way off, Lawson said, because consumers will have to be programmed to match production - or vice versa.
'High-volume cars will have to be simplified in their specification,' he said. 'I can see 30 percent of volume vehicles being built-to-order in the future, with the remaining 70 per cent being delivered much faster. That will be due to the availability of more uniformly specified models as carmakers move to a more modular approach to manufacturing.'
Logistics partners will run customer hand-over centers. They could even finish off cars to meet final specification and handle paperwork such as registration - ultimately delivering right to a customer's front door.
Lawson said: 'We already have the ability to carry out a lot of work in our vehicle preparation centers such as taking out scratches, dents and even burns on seats. We are not alone in this. There are a lot of logistics companies waiting to take on this sort of responsibility.'
Car dealers will have to rethink the way they do business to meet such a change in distribution, he said.
'They may have to think more about aftersales care and how they can best look after the customer in that area,' Lawson said.
'Inland logistics is a global process, although the strategy is regional because of the differences between the markets. There are so many independent businesses operating in all these markets, so there is inefficiency and still not enough visibility in the distribution chain. People are not able to know where their inventory is at any given time.'
Lawson is no stranger to dealer matters, having established his own car retail business in Dundee, Scotland, in the 1970s. In 1978, a year after buying his first car transporter, he formed Richard Lawson Car Delivery Group to service the transport needs of three dealerships in Scotland.
The group became a major supplier to the majority of carmakers in the UK before Wallenius Lines of Sweden acquired a majority interest in the company.
The Richard Lawson Car Delivery Group now handles vehicle movements for Toyota Manufacturing Europe. It also provides integrated logistics for Mercedes-Benz plants in Germany direct to the UK and has activities in Poland.
Willenius, which last year merged with another shipping company, Wilhelmsen Lines AS of Norway, now handles sea and inland shipping across the world including North America and the Far East.
It has just established operations in Thailand as a first step to increasing operations in Asia Pacific. It is also looking at Central and South America.
Ingar Skaug, Wallenius Wilhelmsen chief executive, said: 'We have already decided to build a distribution center in Mexico, although there is no decision yet on where and when. South American countries are extremely important to us for the future.
'Thailand is an interesting market that eventually will have the capability to produce 1.5 million vehicles,' he said. 'That's why we have centered our southeast Asia operations there. Currently 200,000 vehicles are being built in the country. There is significant growth potential.'
Wallenius Wilhelmsen is evolving from an ocean and land transportation company into a complete logistics provider.
Stephen Cadden, senior vice president for global logistics, said: 'Although our expertise is with finished vehicles, we now need to bring in experience in logistics management and get more experience in procurement.
'We are building a team to implement processes in supply chain information and business systems. We cannot do everything, so partnerships and alliances are critical.
'It is also critical to have good information systems,' Cadden said. 'Everyone does track and trace, but we have to go beyond this to dynamic route planning, flexibility within orders, and integration with finance departments. We need to take care of complex international transactions that are still very paper oriented within many companies.'