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How a minor tap on the fender can require thousands of dollars in repairs

Ben Bradford Jan 31, 2019
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AAA recently found cars with advanced safety features commonly cost twice as much to repair as other vehicles.
Ben Bradford/Marketplace

In this era of advanced safety features and partially autonomous cars, even a simple cracked windshield can become an involved repair, costing hundreds of dollars.

“I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal,” said 50-year-old Baltimore resident Adam Richardson, describing when he walked out one morning last winter to see a six-inch crack in his 2017 Ford Fusion.

Richardson’s story is emblematic of how this increasingly popular technology can create surprising costs for consumers.

He called an auto glass shop to come out and do his repair, but when he told the technician the make and model of the car, they told him to come in — the technician would not be able to replace this particular windshield on-site — and quoted him a surprising price tag.

“It ended up being somewhere north of $700, definitely a lot more than I’d anticipated,” Richardson said. The price is more than double the cost of the average windshield replacement for a Ford Fusion of his model year, according to WindshieldGuru.com.

But Richardson’s vehicle has front collision sensors, which will audibly warn him if he is approaching another car at speeds that could lead to an accident. The sensors are mounted on the same stand as the car’s rearview mirror, and they look through the windshield glass.

For those sensors to work properly, “the windshield has to meet very specific requirements for clarity and lack of distortion,” said Michael Calkins, manager of technical services at AAA. “We all know how if you look through a piece of glass sideways, your vision is distorted. The same thing happens to cameras. And to do that, oftentimes the only acceptable windshield is a factory windshield.”

Unable to rely on a cheaper, aftermarket windshield, Richardson bought the more expensive manufacturer-approved version. But that comprised only a little more than half his cost.

To ensure the sensors work correctly with the new windshield — that they still correctly identify objects — a technician must recalibrate them, which added $300 to Richardson’s tab.

AAA recently found cars with advanced safety features commonly cost twice as much to repair as other vehicles. The same report noted that one-in-three drivers cannot afford an unexpected bill of $500.

Janet Gonzalez-King, one of the owners of Innovative Auto Collision, begins to remove the cover behind the front bumper of the Audi SUV. The car’s headlights contain auto-dimming sensors, while the fender has sensors for adaptive cruise control. Both will need to be recalibrated after repairs are complete.

At Innovative Auto Collision in South Los Angeles, owner Janet Gonzalez-King holds a tangle of black plastic and wiring — the remains of the sideview mirror from an Audi Q7. The sideswiped vehicle has a suite of advanced features, including adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and parking assist. The mirror’s housing contained a blind spot detector and de-fogging, memory and power-folding technology. Gonzalez-King said the vehicle will need a new mirror at a cost of almost $2,000, rather than $525 for a used mirror without the technology.

Once connected, the blind spot sensors will need to be recalibrated, an additional cost.

An Audi Q7 sideview mirror cracked in an accident and requires a replacement. The mirror features blindspot sensors, de-fogging, power-folding, memorized positions and a turn signal light. Innovative Auto Collision in South Central Los Angeles charges nearly $2,000 to replace it.

Gonzalez-King said she finds herself explaining these costs more and more.

“It’s heart-breaking to call customers, especially when they’re paying out of pocket,” she said.

The cost of keeping vehicles insured has also increased. Premiums went up almost 20 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. While the association finds collisions and claims have increased, insurers have also cited the cost of repairing advanced safety features.

Repair-side economics

The repair industry stands to benefit from larger bills, but neighborhood shops founded on welding and painting are also suddenly confronted with fixing sensors — more akin to computer repair. One industry analyst recently estimated that vehicle electronics are 10 times more complex than they were seven years ago.

“The body repair industry is struggling with this right now, but they are trying to get up to speed on it,” said Calkins at AAA.

Innovative Auto is one of many repairers that outsources the work of calibrating sensors, either calling in a third party or driving the vehicle to the dealership. Gonzalez-King said that adds additional time for repairs and costs the shop money.

Others, including luxury vehicle repair shop European Motor Car Works in Costa Mesa, Calif., are buying expensive equipment and training to complete the repairs in-house.

European Motor Car Works in Costa Mesa, California works primarily on luxury vehicles.

“It’s changed the whole way you do business,” said Kye Yeung, the owner, who’s repaired cars for 42 years. “When I first opened up, all you needed was a spray gun, a hammer, and a dolly. Nowadays, there’s millions of dollars in investment.”

Every car manufacturer has its own proprietary system of software, hardware and procedure for detecting if sensors are working properly and recalibrating them. The process can take time and involve steps and repairs that seem counterintuitive.

“These systems, they are exact,” said Yeung, who also leads the industry’s Society of Collision Repair Specialists. “If something is out of whack or something isn’t recalibrated, you can be talking somebody’s life.”

An example

Repair technicians in Yeung’s shop are fixing the front fender of a Tesla Model X. Shop foreman Mike Hubbard sits in the front seat, holding a laptop with a cable (proprietary to Tesla) plugged into its ethernet port. He plugs the other end into the vehicle, underneath its dashboard.

Mike Hubbard, the foreman at European Motor Car Works, plugs a laptop into a Tesla to “scan” the vehicles sensors and electronics.

Up on the screen pops a list of all the car’s features, with codes (unique to Tesla) describing each sensor and electronic feature and its status. The technicians, including Hubbard, have done weeks of training to understand Tesla’s procedures and receive the carmaker’s certification to work on the vehicles. But, they still must email the dealer to understand what some of the codes mean.

Before removing the fender, Hubbard performs a first “scan” to check what is working and what has errors when the vehicle first arrives. After the fender is fixed, he’ll need to recalibrate the sensors, including by setting up targets (proprietary) on tripods that the car’s cameras can sense. Then, he’ll need to take the vehicle on a test drive — keeping it at certain speeds, including freeway speeds, for a few minutes.

If the car is not driving straight, Tesla may recommend a wheel alignment, so that the sensors — which expect the car to run straight — match up with the car’s actual movement. 

At the end of the process, he’ll perform another scan. If that shows errors, it will entail more work, followed by another scan.

Profit?

Yeung estimates that at least 20 percent of his billings are now related to ensuring advanced safety features are functioning properly after a repair. But the extra work is not a gold mine, he said.

“At this point in my opinion, it’s not a big profit area. It’s a necessity we have to perform,” he said.

Yeung and Hubbard demonstrate a suite of devices needed to scan sensors and recalibrate them in other vehicles. Subaru has its own camera targets that must be set up on tripods, with a more than 100-pound weight placed on the driver’s seat.

To identify problems with auto sensors in a Range Rover, technicians at European Motor Car Works have plugged in hardware that allows third-party consultants in Texas to check the vehicle. Each carmaker has its own shorthand it uses to describe sensors and their problems, so the repair shop relies on the consultants to translate.

On a Range Rover, they can plug in a multi-purpose scanning device made by a third party. It acts as a router, so that consultants in Texas can call over and translate the codes. But waiting for that call can take a few minutes or, in the case of the Range Rover, over an hour.

Repairers and automakers complain that insurance companies can balk at paying for the manufacturer-approved parts and ancillary labor costs required to ensure these advanced safety features run properly.

“The insurance company, they have certain limits as to what they will cover and how much they’ll cover,” said John Gray, field quality assurance manager for Subaru. “The body shop really needs something, probably from a legislative standpoint, to be able to push back on the insurance company.”

Yeung hopes automakers will issue more position statements — guidance for repairs from the manufacturer — that lay out the optimal repair procedure, so repairers can use it as evidence of the work that is required to make a vehicle safe.

State Farm, the nation’s largest auto insurer, declined an interview about repair costs and what it will or will not pay for. The Insurance Information Institute, an industry group, also did not respond to a request for an interview.

As these safety features become more common on cars, more vehicles will come with these higher costs attached. By 2022, nearly every vehicle sold in the U.S. will come standard with automatic emergency braking — meaning any fender bender on the front of the car could require thousands of dollars in repair costs.

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