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$34K to repair a car? High-tech features mean higher repair bills

$34K fender bender? Car tech pushes repair cost
Credit: Debby Robinson
A repair technician removes a car's front bumper assembly, which houses numerous sensors to support safe driving technology, during a repair at Carstar Lexington Collision in Lexington, S.C.

Many new vehicles these days come loaded with all kinds of extras, including safety features that should help you avoid a crash.

Automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection, forward-collision warning – the list goes on.

Advanced safety features have helped reduce fatalities for those behind the wheel and their passengers, and features that help vehicles avoid pedestrians have the potential to cut into the dramatic increase in pedestrian fatalities in recent years. 

But what happens when these ever-more technologically advanced vehicles crash? Experts say the cost to repair all that technology can be hefty.

John Van Alstyne, CEO and president of I-Car, a non-profit focused on vehicle repair education, recently provided a jaw-dropping figure during an appearance on Autoline, an industry-focused program, to repair a "left front corner hit" on a Kia K900: $34,000.

"The Kia K900, for example, has a ton of technology around the front and the corners of that vehicle," Van Alstyne told host John McElroy, who sounded, not surprisingly, stunned by the figure to repair a luxury sedan, which lists for about $51,000.

A Kia spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the repair figure.

While other experts cautioned to be careful of focusing too much on that particular figure because of the wide array of variables involved in a vehicle collision and repair, it's clear more technology can add to the cost of repair.

In its 2018 "Crash Course" industry trends publication, CCC, which provides vehicle repair cost estimate services, made that case, noting a 2 percent increase in average repair costs from 2016 to 2017 to $2,927 on top of a steady trend of yearly increases beginning in 2010.

"Growth in electronic vehicle content – items added to address vehicle safety or convenience – also add to the overall cost and complexity of repair and the need to understand (automaker) recommended repair procedures," according to the publication.

Not only are more parts needed, but additional labor is required for resetting, calibrating and scanning operations, it said.

"The average it takes to fix a car is going up," said Dan Young, vice president of sales and marketing for AsTech, a Plano, Texas-based company that provides vehicle scanning and diagnostic services. "There's just so many systems that are being installed on these vehicles that operate in the modules and sensors."

Advanced driver-assistance systems, for instance, may employ radar, cameras and other technologies. With most automakers pledging to make automatic emergency braking systems standard on new cars by 2022, the complexity inside most vehicles will expand. 

"Minor fender benders now damage sensitive safety components located in bumpers, side mirrors and fenders, increasing the number of vehicles needing sensor calibration and repair," according to information supplied by Young.

He noted that the technology is expanding beyond luxury vehicles.

“It’s a dramatic shift change in the speed with which this advanced driver-assistance system technology is being placed on high-production, low-cost vehicles,” Young said. "This type of technology is going to help someone avoid accidents, (which) is great, and it's going to reduce the frequency once enough of these cars get into the mainstream, but at the same time, once these cars do get involved in a collision, that’s where, I think, the challenge is from a severity standpoint.”

Dean Fisher, chief operating officer of Carstar, which operates a franchise network of independent collision repair shops, said fixing collision damage is a multilayered process, providing as an example the case of a side mirror with blind-spot monitoring that must be removed. 

“When you remove the mirror from the door to paint the door handles and everything, you may have to recalibrate the security system, the interlocking system in the vehicle and the blind-spot monitoring," Fisher said. Simple repairs, such as painting a bumper, might need additional work to ensure safety systems are functioning properly before the vehicle is released.

"If you paint over the sensors, you have just changed the trajectory of that sensor,” Fisher said.

Repairs that might have cost a couple of hundred dollars in years past can now cost substantially more. Fisher referenced the once relatively modest cost of replacing a headlight. 

"With LED and xenon and then adaptive headlights, where it actually turns a corner with you as you're turning … those headlights can move in the range of $800 to frankly $2,000,“ Fisher said.

Expanding use of materials such as high-strength steel, magnesium, aluminum and carbon fiber in vehicles, as well as design changes to better safeguard occupants during a crash, such as crumple zones, can also complicate the repair process or require full replacement of vehicle sections to meet automaker recommendations.

Fisher offered the example of a well-meaning but ultimately misguided mechanic deciding to space vehicle welds closer together during a collision repair in an effort to strengthen the vehicle.

"What you may have done is disrupt the ability for the car to crash in the way that it was designed to ... crumple. In other words, you’ve made the car stronger than the manufacturer wants it to be," Fisher said.

Such factors highlight the importance of following automaker guidelines for vehicle repair, the experts said, and paying the necessary price of safety.

Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Eric D. Lawrence on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.

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