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Vast's Chad Bockius: How CarStory Is Bringing AI To The Business Of Selling Cars

Austin-based Vast (www.vast.com) has been in the automotive market for over a decade, powering the automotive information behind many, consumer websites. Recently, the company introduced new, artificial intelligence tools on its consumer platform, CarStory (www.carstory.com), which it says can help consumers make more confident decisions about their car purchase. We caught up with Chad Bockius, Chief Product Officer and Chief Marketing Officer at the company, to learn more about that push into AI, and how this all came about.

What is CarStory?

Chad Bockius: By way of background, Vast has been in the automotive industry for well over eleven years. We have largely been behind the scenes, powering the largest automotive sites out there, from KBB to AOL to Capital One, as one of the largest data providers on automobiles. About five years ago, we realized that we have acquired so much data, we could start to uncover interesting insights and analytics about those vehicles, so we started building out one of the industry's first, automotive AI platforms. The timing came together very nicely, as we were able to acquire enough data and technolgoy at that point, to do interesting things with that data. It was a question of what problem to solve for consumers. What this release is about, and which I'm very excited to talk about, is we are helping consumer make more confident decisions, based on that data that we have collected at analyzed. We can understand the condition of a car, the deal, what makes that car unique, and most importantly deliver that to where a consumer is. We know that three quarters of consumers are now using their mobile device, and that mobile devices are used by the large majority of us, so we redesigned CarStory's Market Reports for that form factor. We know that consumers are skimming information, rather than digging into individual items.

Is that available to consumers directly?

Chad Bockius: We actually approach the consumer through dealers, through the CarStory Market Report. We partner with dealers, and are currently live on 7,000 websites. We also partner with automotive OEMs, such as Huyundai, Ford, Volkwagen, and others. What we do, is we provide all of this rich data directly on a vehicle page, as you might be looking at on those sites. Today, we actually touch 15 million consumers across all those sites we mention, and you can access the unique, CarStory Market Report on each and every vehicle they are looking at. We analyze the vehicle, and analyze that vehicle specifically in its local market. So, you could take a specific car in Austin, and then drop that car into Seattle, and the Market Report would change because it's a different market. We're doing that in real time, and giving consumers better data to make decisions.

How is CarStory related to Vast?

Chad Bockius: Vast has been around for eleven years. When you look at the people who started the company, and who are still involved today, we have some folks with very early consumer roots, like Naval Ravikant (editor's note: the founder and CEO of AngelList) and Kevin Laws. Both Naval and Kevin founded and ran Epinions, so even from our early days we had a consumer focus. However ,we very quickly shifted to become a B2B company. About 7-8 years ago, Vast brough in John Price to head up the company. John, as you know, is a co-founder of Trilogy, and has very deep roots here in Austin. John started getting involved as CEO, and moved the company to Austin from San Francisco and started expanding our team. There are lots of former Trilogy folks here. One of those folks, Dr. David Franke, our Chief Scientist, has a very deep background in artificial intelligence. David started buildling the team, and when people started to come together, we realized all that we could do from the data we've collected over the years. It's so unique and valuable. The people who needed that was the consumer. So, the challenge was figuring out the first product we'd have for consumers, CarStory, and how to get it in their hands, and it's been a lot of fun executing on that plan.

Can you help us understand what you've been able to do with those AI tools?

Chad Bockius: One of the things we know about automotive shoppers, is that they love to look at the pictures. They want to see the car, see if there is any damage, see what technology is in the car, and see if it has the right look for what they want to buy. What we found, was that consumers were really getting frustrated with finding the pictures that mattered. Dealers would take pictures, taking all of the exterior shots first, then the interior. We figured out using our software, how consumers want to see pictures, and t's not in that order. We used machine learning and AI to go through and analyze the 1.2 billion photos we've collected, and trained our models to classify what each pictue was. There might be 40 pictures on a specific car here in Austin, including what typically has been used as the “hero shot”, with the car facing left. This is all automated, using machine learning. Why that is so important, is we've been able to figure out what order of pictures is the way that consumers want to consume them. In a world where consumer attention spans are shorter and shorter, people are accessing information on mobile, and they want to do it quickly, that becomes absolutely critical. We've done A/B tests where we see a 13 percent increase in lead conversions, when you order pictures based on machine learning, versus a generic set of those 40/50 pictures a dealer might provide.

So what's the big goal for you here?

Chad Bockius: We are going to continue to push down the path of being the leader in automotive AI. It's not about what people have been doing with driverless cars, but more around how to use AI to better help consumers and dealers make decisions. You are going to see us rolling out many more products, with many in the works, all of which are part of the CarStory platform. We are creating what will be the industry's first, intelligent assistant for both consumers and dealers. We'll be talking more about that in the coming months and quarters.

Thanks!


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