DETROIT – The world went digital.

That’s one reason Finbarr O’Neill cites for his decision to step down as president and CEO of research firm J.D. Power and Associates, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“I’m an analog guy,” O’Neill tells a small gathering of media here to talk about his impending retirement, noting whoever replaces him – that’s still undetermined – will need to be “a digital guy” and be ready to make at least a 4- or 5-year commitment to the job in order to transition the company into the age of Big Data.

But it’s hard to imagine O’Neill, who has had a long and successful career in a variety of roles in the auto industry and only half serious about his digital limitations, not being able to lead that transformation if he wanted to. J.D. Power already has begun the move under his watch and is mulling additional steps in the digital direction, and in discussions here it’s clear he has a pretty good idea where the data-mining business is headed in the next phase.

“It’s just time,” O’Neill, 65, says of his decision announced in October to step aside, noting he has a few things still on his bucket list he wants to get to.

O’Neill is an attorney by trade, and he began his automotive career as senior counsel at Toyota’s U.S. operations in 1983. He ultimately moved over to Hyundai, where in 1998 he was tapped to head the brand’s U.S. operations. “I was just the last guy left, so they said, ‛You do it,’” he says with characteristic humility of the appointment to the top job.

O’Neill left Hyundai in 2003 for a 2-year stint as the head of Mitsubishi Motor Sales North America. He joined J.D. Power in 2008 following a stop at dealership-management software producer Reynolds & Reynolds.

With O’Neill’s planned departure, set for March 19 give or take, Doug Betts, senior vice president-Global Automotive and a one-time Nissan and Chrysler quality-control manager, will be counted on to continue leading J.D. Power’s automotive operations into the next phase. Under Betts, that arm already is becoming more active in consulting projects with OEMs and is looking for ways to get more ongoing data from car buyers through smartphone apps and other means.

Quality and reliability “information needs to flow, rather than be episodic” through J.D. Power’s extensive annual surveys, O’Neill says of potential new data-gathering means.

Asked what he thinks is J.D. Power’s most important survey, he cites its dependability report that rates automotive brands on the number of problems encountered over the first three years of ownership.

“It’s a big driver of brand loyalty,” he says, noting some of the OEMs that score high in initial appeal with consumers aren’t always at the top of the list in dependability.

O’Neill says the biggest change in his 30-plus years in the auto industry has been in consumer behavior and expectations. Car buyers are better informed, want to purchase vehicles in more convenient ways and have higher expectations both about the product and the retailers, he says.

Going forward, trends such as mobility, electrification and autonomous vehicles will put even more pressure on the industry, but how and how much those will have an impact is uncertain, he says with a note of skepticism.

“People are starting to ask questions about these (new) business models,” O’Neill says. “How will they actually work; what are the financial (scenarios)?”

Even as the industry shifts, there will be room for J.D. Power, he contends.

“The stakeholders may change, but they’ll still be interested in (understanding the consumer) too,” O’Neill says.

dzoia@wardsauto.com @DavidZoia