On my commute I pass a new glass tower right off I-270, around Shady Grove Road. Do you have any idea what it is?
— Chris Cochran, Gaithersburg, Md.
It is most definitely not a used-car dealership. That’s because Carvana — a company that sells, um, used cars — says it is trying to shatter that model.
Carvana is a Phoenix-based company that allows consumers to search for, select and buy a car entirely online. The one thing Carvana can’t do is deliver the vehicle over the Internet, cars not being made of 1s and 0s.
The company was founded in 2012 and started out delivering vehicles directly to customers’ homes. You can still get a car sent to your door, but in 2015 Carvana unveiled its first car vending machine, in Nashville. And that’s what is off Shady Grove Road near Interstate 270: an eight-story candy machine that instead of gumballs spits out Mustangs and Beetles.
Answer Man recently got a tour from Ryan Keeton, co-founder and chief brand officer for Carvana. Carvana’s vehicles, Keeton explained, start out at one of the company’s four inspection stations, where they are checked out and photographed in detail. Consumers can scrutinize them online, arrange financing and handle their trade-in.
If they opt to pick up the car at a vending machine — there are now 10 — they arrive at the appointed time and are handed a large coin to drop into a slot. Then the machine whirs to life.
The basic technology was invented in Europe for parking garages. There are four cars on each of eight levels, though there is a maximum of 30 vehicles, not 32, since a space must be kept open at the bottom to load new cars and a space is kept open to accept a new car.
A platform rises in the center of the tower to the designated position, where metal arms slide over to the appropriate car and then pull out the platform it sits on. Down goes the elevator. At the bottom, the platform is slid along a corridor and into a glass delivery bay. The new owner gets in and drives away.
What’s wrong with a parking lot, which has served dealerships for decades?
Keeton said a traditional dealership can require acres of asphalt and dozens of employees. Carvana doesn’t need that. Keeping overhead low is important. As execs were brainstorming, someone said, “What if it was like a vending machine?”
There’s another plus: “We get the benefit of highway traffic and visibility and brand awareness,” Keeton said.
The entire process takes about two minutes, but you can relive it forever because Carvana’s video cameras record it. Buyers get clips to share on social media.
It remains to be seen whether Carvana can become the “Amazon of used cars” — reaction in the business press has been mixed — but there’s no denying that its vending machines are pretty cool. Talk about vertically integrated. (To see a video of the car vending machine in action, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.)
The distinctive Carvana tower isn’t the only interesting structure to have gone up on I-270 in recent months. Around the same time it was under construction, a squat rectangle was being built just north of it. It didn’t look like an office building, either.
Matt Owens knew what it was immediately. The shape was familiar to him from driving to a job in Loudoun County, Va. It could only be an iFly indoor skydiving tunnel. Matt applied for a job and is now the sales manager at what is the company’s 31st U.S. location.
The tunnel uses massive 400 horsepower fans to drive air and create the sensation of free-falling. Answer Man thought they must be in the ground pointed up, but Owens explained that the fans — four of them, each six feet in diameter — are at the top of the building. Air is forced around the edges of the building, across the lower level and then up into the vertical cylindrical tunnel in which customers float.
The air blows at about 120 mph, allowing people to experience the part of a parachute jump that comes between when you jump out of the airplane and when you pull the ripcord.
Said Owens, “I’ve logged a little over an hour of flight time. . . . Now I’m working on learning to fly on my back.”
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.