Car buyers' increasing reliance on the Internet is attracting more attention from automobile lenders than a four-car freeway pileup.

The growing role that the World Wide Web is playing in auto purchases is sure to be a prime topic as bank executives gather today in Atlanta for the Consumer Bankers Association's annual auto finance conference.

The Internet is already altering the way cars are bought and has the potential to shake up the traditional methods of financing these purchases.

"Banks are facing a tectonic plate shift because of changing challenges in the distribution of cars and financing through the Internet," said Joe Belew, the trade group's president.

Consumers now arrive in showrooms armed with a wealth of information gleaned from hours spent surfing the Web. Some banks and dealers today offer loans over the Internet, leading some to worry that the day may not be far off when consumers can find the cheapest loan rates in the nation at the click of a mouse.

Norman J. Buchan, president of Chase Automotive Finance, said the number of people using the Internet to research auto purchases doubled in the last year. This total will reach eight million by 2003, he predicted. In addition 25% of people who surf the Web use it to shop for cars.

"The role of e-commerce will be transformational," Mr. Buchan said.

Surfing the Net for auto financing raises concerns that consumers may make choices based solely upon pricing, rather than service or product offerings, two areas in which banks can differentiate themselves, said Jeffrey T. Siler, executive vice president of dealer finance at National City Corp. in Dayton, Ohio.

"If you were buying a car on your computer, you would be able to scroll to the cheapest payment and hit the button," Mr. Siler said. "That could hold some real competitive ramifications for the industry."

Banks also could lose valuable relationships as people use the Net to circumvent car dealers. Dealerships often turn to banks not only for financing sales but also for real estate loans and their personal banking needs.

"There is a fine line that is crossed when the consumer touches the bank before, rather than after, he or she touches the dealer," said William C. Baggett, executive vice president at Wachovia Corp. "We are concerned about protecting the delivery channel we have while not being blind to future possibilities."

Indeed, Mr. Baggett is scheduled to moderate a discussion with five dealership managers. He said his most pressing question for panelists is how they will deal with consumers' increasing reliance on Internet car shopping.

"I'm going to ask them if they see a way that e-commerce, financing sources, and dealers can exist in the same world," he said. "I think it's a very difficult question to answer."

Yet the arrival of Internet car shopping could also hold some positive ramifications for the industry, Mr. Siler argued.

"To paint a rosier picture, this scenario could help us reach a much larger group of potential customers," he said.

"I see the Internet as a real learning curve but also a real opportunity," agreed Edward Tinsley, president of Bank One Credit Co.

Unlike years past, subprime auto lending is not expected to be a hot topic at the conference. Many bankers have shied away from building portfolios of subprime auto loans in the wake of the 1997 meltdown in that sector. Rather, the trend in this area seems to be one of strategic alliances.

In the past 12 months, several banks have established relationships with lenders specializing in the subprime area. This helps them solidify relationships with dealers by letting them serve customers with less-than- stellar credit but without the risk.

Just this month, Chase Manhattan Corp. announced a strategic alliance with Americredit Corp., a consumer finance company in Fort Worth. In July, NationsBank Corp.'s auto finance unit, now a unit of BankAmerica Corp., agreed to refer subprime loan applicants to Houston-based First Investors Financial Services.

"I would say that banks are just not as good at doing this kind of business themselves," said Wachovia's Mr. Baggett.

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