Auto transport is the lifeblood of the auto industry, whether it’s dealer-to-dealer shipping or door-to-door shipping. Millions of cars are shipped throughout the US every year to tens of thousands of showrooms and sale lots, but how are new cars transported to dealerships?

There are several ways cars are delivered from the factory floor to the dealership, including multi-level trailers, cargo ships, and railroads. Learn more about the process that cars go through from the manufacturing plant to the dealer showroom.

The Journey Begins – Manufacturing to Shipping

All cars start in an auto manufacturer’s plant for assembly. Once a car rolls off the assembly line at a manufacturing plant, it goes through a final inspection before vehicle processing. This is when the vehicle is fitted with upgraded options like safety features or technology features.

Some vehicles are fitted with wrap guard, a protective material for the exterior, that guards against scratches on their journey. When processing is complete, the car begins its journey to the dealership.

The process is generally the same across manufacturers, but the time it takes for new vehicles to get from the factory to the dealership can vary. For example, many cars are manufactured overseas, so those cars may take longer to arrive while vehicles manufactured in the United States will typically arrive at a dealership faster.

General Motors, the parent company of Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, and GMC, and Stellantis North America, the parent company of Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and RAM, both operate in the US. Ford Motor Company, the parent company of Ford and Lincoln, is also based in the US. Together, these manufacturers are responsible for many of the vehicles on dealer lots.

Most of the manufacturing plants are located in the Midwest, including Ford’s Kansas City, Missouri, plant – the largest in the US. The second-largest plant is also Ford’s in Dearborn, Michigan.

The locations in the Midwest are for good reason. These plants are in the center of the country, providing easy routes to the East Coast, West Coast, and the rest of the country. It only takes a few days for these factory vehicles to reach the coasts or the southern states, in most cases.

Choosing the Right Transport Mode

How cars are shipped to dealerships depends on where the plants are located and the distance they must travel. Manufacturers usually use the following modes of transportation:


Rail shipping is one of the most cost-effective transport methods for long shipping routes. Most of the cars coming from manufacturers will spend at least some of the journey by rail, especially with extensive railway networks near plants.

Cars traveling by rail may be loaded directly on car racks at the factory or they may be transported by truck to the railyard. These racks have two decks (bi-level) or three decks (tri-level). Bi-level racks hold about 8-10 vehicles and are used for larger trucks and SUVs. Tri-level racks hold about 15 cars – 5 on each level – and are used for smaller cars.

Specialized trains are used to ship vehicles and can hold about 800 cars. Vehicles are loaded using buck loaders, which are mobile ramps that can be raised or lowered to the decks, so cars can be driven on and off easily.

Exotic cars, custom vehicles, and antique or classic cars may travel by rail, but the process is a little different. They are held in enclosed trailers to protect them from the elements, including rain or direct sunlight, so fewer cars travel at once.


Rail shipping is cost-effective, but it’s not as flexible as truck shipping. Most vehicles travel by truck at some point in the trip, especially when they’re headed to small-town dealers, on double-deck trailers that can hold about 12 vehicles.

These specialized trailers have ramps that can be raised or lowered to ensure loading is smooth and quick. Once the cars are loaded, they’re secured at four points using heavy-duty chains and straps.

Like rail shipping, enclosed truck transport may be available for specialty vehicles. These trucks and trailers are about the same size as open-air trailers, but they transport fewer cars. Most models can hold 7 or 8 vehicles.


Ocean transport is a primary mode of transport for cars coming to the US from overseas manufacturers or going to dealerships off the mainland in Hawaii or Alaska. Some vehicles may travel by air, but it’s rare and airplanes tend to be very limited in cargo capacity. Container ships, by contrast, can hold a huge load of cars, which makes it a much more efficient method of shipping.

Roll-on/roll-off, or RoRo, ships are specially designed for car transport. As the name suggests, RoRo ships allow cars to be driven on or off the ship. In the past, cars were loaded and unloaded using cranes which were a hazard for the vehicles and other cargo.

A large, specialized RoRo ship can transport over 8,000 cars and 375 tons, but most car carrier ships can carry at least 4,000 to 5,000 vehicles. The US has five port locations where these ships arrive to unload car shipments and send them to dealerships.

Once they arrive at the port, the cars are unloaded and placed in storage to wait for a car hauler. Once the car hauler picks up the vehicles, they typically go directly from the port to the dealership, but some may be transferred to rail shipping hubs to travel a longer distance.

The Role of Auto Transport Brokers

Auto transport brokers play an important role in getting vehicles from factories to dealerships, or from dealership to dealership. They facilitate shipping between the manufacturers, dealerships, and the carriers that actually transport the vehicles.

Here are some crucial responsibilities of auto transport brokers in the process of delivering vehicles from factory to dealership:

  • Acting as an intermediary with clients and carriers: Brokers match clients (factories and dealerships) with reputable shipping companies to transport their vehicles. This saves clients time and ensures their vehicles are in the right hands.

  • Negotiating rates: Brokers negotiate rates with carriers on behalf of their clients to secure the best deal possible. They leverage their experience and knowledge to ensure the pricing is fair and competitive.

  • Managing the logistics: Brokers handle the complex logistics of transportation, including scheduling pickup and delivery times, tracking shipments, and addressing any delays or obstacles that come up.

  • Providing expertise: Brokers understand the ins and outs of the auto industry and can guide clients to ensure the process goes smoothly.

  • Ensuring compliance and safety: Brokers ensure that carriers are licensed, insured, and compliant with local and federal regulations for safe, legal car shipping.

On the Road – The Logistics of Auto Transport

No matter the mode of transport, cars must be loaded and secured to ensure they’re safe on the trip. The process can vary by the mode of transport, however.

With open trailers, cars are driven onto the trailer and parked in their assigned spot. For enclosed trailers, cars may be loaded using ramps or lift gates. Once loaded, cars are secured using straps, chains, or wheel nets to keep them in place during transport.

There are several regulations and safety measures shipping companies must abide by to protect new cars during transport, including:

  • Licensing and insurance: Auto transporters must be licensed and insured to operate legally.

  • Chain of custody: When vehicles change hands along a shipping route, each change in possession requires an inspection to identify and report any damage.

  • Inspections: Before cars are transported, they’re inspected for any existing damage as proof for potential damage claims upon arrival.

  • Driver credentials: Drivers must meet certain qualifications, such as having a valid commercial driver’s license and a clean driving record, to transport cars and drive large trailers.

  • Route planning: Shippers must plan routes extensively to avoid hazards and minimize the risks of delays or damage. Trucks that ship cars may need to avoid certain routes that can’t accommodate the size of the vehicle.

Though shipping often goes smoothly, there are potential challenges carriers may face along the way, including:

  • Inclement weather, such as slippery roads or poor visibility in fog or rain, may reroute shipments or cause delays.

  • Logistical delays because of traffic, road closures, or other unforeseen circumstances.

  • Driver shortages may require backup drivers or alternate planning.

Experienced shippers can manage these potential challenges by keeping consistent communication between clients and drivers, relying on GPS tracking and route planning, and monitoring shipments. There are often contingency plans in place to address unexpected challenges, such as rerouting a shipment.

The Final Mile – Delivery to Dealerships

After traveling, most cars only have about 25 miles or less on the odometer, which is due to being moved around at the factory, on and off loading ramps, and through storage lots.

When the car arrives at the dealership, it’s inspected one final time to check for dents, dings, scratches, or other damage. If it’s clear, it’s washed and detailed before being sent to the showroom or lot to sell.

The New Car’s Journey from the Factor to Your Local Dealership

Shipping cars from the manufacturing plant to local dealerships involves long hauls, multiple routes and modes of transport, and a lot of planning. The combination of ships, trucks, and trains – guided by the planning of experienced auto transport brokers – ensures that vehicles make their way from the factory to the showroom as efficiently and damage-free as possible.

Looking for more information on auto shipping?Contact Nexus Auto Transportation to learn more about auto transport services.