A car sits inside a Carvana vending machine ready for its buyer.

How Do Carvana Vending Machines Work? We Found Out

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Even if you haven’t heard about Carvana’s car vending machines, you may have seen one along the highway. The tall, rectangular glass-and-steel buildings are quite intriguing, and pretty hard to miss. 

But whether you’ve heard about them from advertisements or spotted one while driving, the mere existence of a “car vending machine” naturally brings up a lot of questions. How do they work? Why use a vending machine? How many people choose this option over home delivery? And of course, (possibly the most pressing question,) can you ride in it?

We wanted answers, so we took a trip to a Carvana location in Greensboro, North Carolina to see the entire process in person. Our team spoke about the vending machines with Carvell Copeland, the Market Operations Manager for Carvana in that area, to find out how customers like them and the impact the machines have had on the company itself. 

Carvell Copeland, Market Operations Manager for Carvana, standing in front of one of the company's car vending machines.
Carvell Copeland

How Do the Car Vending Machines Work?

From the customer perspective, the car vending machines work pretty much like any other vending machine. After buying your car online, you’ll schedule an appointment at your preferred location. 

Once there, you place a coin – in this case, a special Carvana coin – into the coin slot. Shortly after, the car you purchased descends several stories down and is presented to you through a large glass wall. 

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The simplicity of the experience is an important feature, according to Copeland.

“[Buyers] are greeted by a customer advocate who facilitates their experience and guides them through the rest of their process,” he says. “Our customers are provided with a large, silver, Carvana-branded coin to drop for their vehicle to vend down, spin, and disperse into a delivery bay in order to be driven out.”

The Secret Behind the Vending Machines? It’s People

Behind the scenes, there is a lot that goes into making that simple vending machine experience work. Cars need to be loaded into the “machine” and readied for pickup by the time the customer arrives. That requires everything from first getting the vehicle to a particular location from what may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away, to finally detailing it.

Copeland took us back into the office where the coordination of all that labor happens, along with the regulatory and registration work the company does. Carvana also manages most – and in many cases, all – of the paperwork that goes with buying or selling a vehicle. That means dealing with state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), lending organizations, and more.

Carvana employees taking care of behind-the-scenes work to ready vehicles for the car vending machine.

“At a Carvana vending machine, there are many roles and individuals that play a major part in making things run smoothly,” says Copeland. “Our lot attendants and inventory teams have a huge role in ensuring vehicles arrive as scheduled, are inspected, detailed, and staged for our customer advocates to be able to present and deliver a satisfactory vehicle to our customers.”

Vending Machines Played a Role in the Company’s Growth

Since its 2012 debut, Carvana has stressed the customer experience as a major pillar of its brand. Its business model represented a significant departure from the traditional method of buying and selling used cars – an experience that often involves long, tense visits to dealerships and haggling with salespeople.

And while people have been buying and selling cars online since the 1990s, Carvana’s more streamlined approach was a departure from the previous model of essentially online classified ads. The company’s online car dealer model, in which Carvana sells and buys cars and maintains a national inventory, resulted in rapid company growth. 

The approach created a massive shift in the industry. New competitors are constantly entering the online market. More traditional in-person dealerships like CarMax are also now incorporating a similar model into their business plans.

From the outset, Carvana emphasized the ease of its car buying and selling process, which often included home pickups or deliveries. A large part of the appeal was the idea that, as either a seller or a buyer, you wouldn’t have to ever set foot in a car dealership or even leave your home.

Carvana delivery trucks lined up in a parking lot.

For this reason, spending the time and money to create the world’s first robotic car vending machine might have seemed like an odd choice. But Carvana vending machines have existed almost as long as the company itself.

Carvana debuted its first iteration of the machine in Atlanta, Georgia in 2013. It unveiled the first fully-automatic version, similar to the ones in use today, in its Nashville, Tennessee location in 2015. 

The experience of getting a car from a vending machine is unique, as the company is the only one of its kind to offer it. According to Copeland, it’s also one that seems to register with people.

Vehicles inside a Carvana vending machine tower, as seen from the inside.

In his own career, Copeland helped establish North Carolina’s first vehicle vending machine, which sits at Carvana’s Raleigh location. Later, he was also part of the launch team for the much larger Greensboro machine that we visited. His experience has allowed him to watch the program evolve.

“When Carvana first began building our vending machines, they were only three and five stories tall, with only a few select individuals that could program and work on them,” says Copeland.  “However, Carvana [has since] created a vending machine services team that continuously grows to help maintain, troubleshoot, and support smooth operation.”

Car Vending Machines Are a Hit With Shoppers

Copeland says that the bright, shiny buildings have played a major role in Carvana’s accelerated growth over the past decade.

“In the locations where vending machines have been built, it has naturally increased business in the surrounding area,” he says. “The large glass tower with cars and pretty lights catches the eye of everyone that passes by. They have been great attractions in major cities throughout all of our locations.” 

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In most cases, car buyers can have their purchased vehicles delivered to or near their home for free. But during our conversation, Copeland estimated that around half of the Carvana customers in the area he manages come to the vending machines instead – a fact that somewhat surprised our team.

“Though we do pride ourselves in being able to conveniently deliver to the driveways of our customers, we also like to provide an experience that you can not get anywhere else other than Carvana,” he says.

The Carvana Vending Machine Experience is Admittedly Pretty Neat 

“Customers are super excited and very amazed when they walk in,” Copeland says. “They often have lots of questions but really look forward to dropping the coin to watch their car vend out.” After seeing the car vending machine in person, we can agree that “super excited” is a reasonable description. The vending experience is, admittedly, pretty neat. 

The vending machine experience epitomizes the smooth online car buying process that Carvana helped popularize. It’s an overall process that is far less involved and for many, far less stressful than a day at the dealership or meeting a private seller in a random parking lot. With the bright, shiny car vending machine, the experience of buying a used car could even be described as “fun.”

A black Honda Accord sitting inside a Carvana vending machine.

So much fun, in fact, that we did ask Copeland if we could ride in one of the cars as it traveled through the vending machine. This might have been something of a personal mission. He declined, however, citing things like “safety” as the reason.

Still, there is something about the whole experience that elicited a childlike joy in our team. Between the large, shiny coins you drop in, the colossal tower of cars, the hulking machinery, and everything else, it’s hard not to feel at least a small sense of wonder and excitement – even when you aren’t driving off with a new car at the end of it.

It’s a car buying experience that Copeland says many people want to share. “It is very common for each customer to record their experience and bring their friends or family,” he says. “It’s often tough to determine if the kids or the adults are the most excited about the experience.”

Gallery: More Photos of the Carvana Vending Machine

All photos by David Straughan for Automoblog.