About 10 percent of the auto industry's transactions could be online by 2019, Cox Automotive COO Mark O'Neil said Thursday at the Automotive News Retail Forum.
O'Neil, discussing trends that could disrupt the industry this year and beyond, said continuous growth in overall online U.S. retail over the past several years soon will extend to the auto industry, which has largely avoided web sales.
Online auto retail could follow the same general path as "disruptive" offerings such as Uber and home-sharing platform Airbnb, in which usage rates grow at an exponential rate after somewhat stagnant growth in the early years.
"Once you figure out it's a good thing, it takes off like crazy," O'Neil said. "I think by the end of 2017 we are going to be leaving that, I'll call it, "slow-growth, bumpy, experiment-with-it phase,' and we're going to start with the very rapid part of the growth."
O'Neil said there are already signs of consumers catching on to online retail, noting that 32 percent of consumers who started the vehicle-buying process online ultimately bought the exact vehicle they were looking at online.
The auto industry has been relatively slow to dive into online retail, in part because of resistance from some dealers who view it as a potential step toward automakers selling vehicles directly to consumers.
O'Neil, the cofounder of CarMax Inc., said dealerships would not be under threat as online sales grow, as long as they adapt, invest in their online offerings and adjust accordingly.
"I don't think the dealer will be dis-intermediated if they don't let themselves be dis-intermediated," he said. "In the U.S., we have a very strong franchise system, and I think that's going to protect the dealer."