Years ago, fixing a car after a collision may have meant straightening out steel and swapping out damaged parts, but the complexity of modern cars means that the repair process is now more complicated—and more costly.
Car designs are more intricate today due to advances in technology that make driving safer and more fuel-efficient, but also because modern drivers want “creature comforts” in their cars, says Scott Brown, president of the International Automotive Technicians Network.
“Some of it is driven by safety, and some of it by consumer demand,” he explains.
Factors Driving Up Repair Costs
Modern cars are more expensive to repair for a variety of reasons.
Advanced technology. Modern vehicles have more moving parts and systems to fix in the event of a crash.
Complexity. More steps—and time—may be needed to repair certain systems.
New materials. Some parts that used to require simple repairs when damaged must now be replaced because of the materials they’re made from. For example, parts made from high-strength steel have to be replaced because the steel can’t be straightened with high heat without losing its strength.
Equipment. High-tech repairs require pricey new tools and equipment.
Labor costs. Fixing complex systems requires more skill and training, increasing the cost of labor.
“It’s not as simple as replacing a part like it was a few years ago,” says Jason Bartanen, director of industry relations for the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair, an international nonprofit that provides education and training on auto repair.
Materials Affect Costs
In the past, most cars were constructed from heavy sheet metal. As automakers strive to make cars lighter and safer, this is no longer the case. Today, car manufacturers are making vehicles from materials that include aluminum, carbon fiber, high-strength steel and magnesium alloys. These lightweight materials help to improve the vehicle’s fuel economy while maintaining safety.
Although these new materials help drivers save money on gas and protect occupants in accidents, they also increase repair costs, explains Skip Potter, executive director of the National Automotive Service Task Force. One problem: aluminum dust and steel dust can’t safely mix during car repairs, Potter warns. “It’s explosive.”
In response, some larger auto body shops have built separate areas in order to work on aluminum cars, Potter says. The cost to build and maintain these new repair areas is eventually passed on to customers and their auto insurance companies in the form of higher repair costs due to increased labor rates.
The use of new materials in the manufacturing process can also add costs to the repair process. Auto body shops must now purchase new tools and train employees in techniques for repairing these unfamiliar metals. One example: rivet bonding techniques that require training and expensive rivet guns are becoming standard for repairing aluminum vehicles, Bartanen explains.
These new techniques and tools make collision auto repair more specialized than ever, Potter points out. “The technicians of today are not the mechanics of yesterday,” he adds.
High-Tech Systems Need Pricey Repairs
Computerized systems offer convenience and safety on the road but mean higher repair costs in the event of an accident. Here are eight examples of how these systems have made formerly simple repairs a lot more involved:
Air Bag Replacement
Modern airbags are a lot smarter than their older counterparts, detecting differences in passenger weight. If an airbag deploys during a crash and has to be replaced, the repair technician may have to replace a variety of other components, including the airbag sensors, Bartanen says.
If a technician removes a seat and replaces the air bag sensors inside the seat, they will have to “teach” the new sensors what different weights feel like. One reason for this is so that the airbag system will disable the airbag if a small child, who could be hurt by the airbag, sits in the seat. Otherwise, the airbag might deploy when it shouldn’t or not deploy when it should, he warns.
In the past, car bodies were designed in such a way that the initial force of a crash would pass from the car to the passenger cabin directly. Modern cars, however, feature crumple zones: structural components that absorb some of the crash energy, rather than transferring it throughout the cabin. With the addition of these zones, the severity of passenger injury has been significantly reduced but cars are likely to experience more significant damage, even in low-speed collisions.
To repair a car that has been in an accident, the technician cannot simply “bang out” the panels as in the past. Instead, they have to remove that panel or panels that were damaged and replace them with new ones.
A bumper used to be a piece of steel that was easily replaced as a unit, but that’s no longer the case, Potter says. Today, a bumper is a molded piece of vinyl lightly attached to a strong composite i-beam, designed to function with a crumple zone that protects the passenger compartment at the expense of the rest of the vehicle. Inside the bumper, there are shock systems designed to lessen the damage in collisions at speeds under 5 mph.
A bumper also can house cameras and sensors for backing up, collision avoidance and lane alignment. These changes in bumper technology may have easily doubled or tripled the cost of repair or replacement, Potter estimates.
Front End Repair
Beyond the bumper, the front end of a vehicle may contain other complicated components and systems that can cost a pretty penny to fix. For example, many new cars offer adaptive cruise control, which uses radar or laser beams to sense other vehicles, so that the car can adjust its speed to remain at a safe distance from the other vehicles. These systems generally sit in the front end of the car, Bartanen says.
The front end may contain a variety of other components as well. For example, in the Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid compact car, a charging module sits just behind the right side of the front bumper. “If you were to hit that and do some damage, it could be very expensive to repair,” Brown warns.
Side Body Repair
Many vehicles are partially constructed from ultrahigh-strength steel, often used to increase the safety of passenger compartments. Ten years ago, a body shop could straighten out a car using a 3D measuring system and chains to apply stress. In some cases, the process involved applying heat to parts of the vehicle. Now, parts made from ultrahigh-strength steel cannot be straightened with high heat because the process would destroy the strength of the material.
Tire and Wheel Repair
Tire repair is no longer as easy as pulling off a damaged tire and replacing it with a new one, Potter says. Most new cars contain a tire pressure monitoring system, which keeps tabs on the air pressure within the tires and alerts the driver if the air pressure dips below a certain level.
These systems can help drivers stay safe and avoid dangerous tire blowouts, but they also make tire repair more complex. If a tire pressure monitoring sensor is damaged in a collision, the technician needs to replace and initialize it so that it can communicate with the main computer on the car, Potter explains.
No longer is a windshield simply a piece of lightweight glass that can be swapped out if it cracks or shatters. A modern windshield may contain an array of high-tech components. For example, the glass may house cameras for the lane departure warning system, which warns drivers when they are drifting out of their lane.
In addition, it may house a rain sensor that signals the car to turn on the windshield wipers once the first drops of rain fall. There also may be a light sensor that automatically turns on the headlights when the sky begins to darken. If your windshield needs to be repaired or replaced, these components may need to be reinstalled and recalibrated.
Side Mirror Repair
According to Bartanen, accidentally knocking off a side mirror can require a complex repair. For example, a side mirror may contain cameras for the 360-degree camera system, which allows the driver to see all around the outside of the car. In that case, a technician must replace those parts and recalibrate the system. “It used to be you’d put the mirror back on and call it a day,” he says.
Calibration Can Be Costly
After a repair, all advanced driver assistance systems require recalibration in order to function properly. The time, skill and special equipment required to recalibrate can add to the repair cost.
The steps and equipment required to recalibrate a system vary based on the system, the manufacturer and the make and model of the vehicle. For example, technicians may use a handheld scanner or software to recalibrate a system in a car, whereas other recalibration procedures require the technician to take the vehicle for a drive.
In order to recalibrate the Ford lane keeper system, for example, technicians need to drive for ten minutes at 40 mph. “That might not be an issue in rural Wisconsin, but it very much might be in New York City,” Bartanen says.
Recalibration is a crucial part of the repair process. Returning the car to its owner without first making sure that all systems are functioning as designed can result in a range of problems.
For example, failing to properly recalibrate a 360-degree camera system can result in gaps or overlap in camera coverage, meaning that the driver won’t be able to properly see everything around the outside of the car.
If the park assist system, which allows a car “to parallel park itself” isn’t functioning properly, your car could “park itself into another car,” Bartanen says. And if the adaptive cruise control system isn’t properly calibrated, it could fail to sense cars slowing in front of you on the highway at 65 mph and this could lead to a serious accident, Brown warns.
Fine-tuning repaired systems is crucial for safety but it makes repairs more time-consuming—and expensive.
Repair Costs Could Plateau
There may be good news. Repair costs may not continue their upward trajectory. According to Brown, just as with home computers, electronic components in cars become more inexpensive as time goes on.
Also, these safety systems that cost more to fix should eventually reduce the frequency and severity of collisions, which will ultimately bring repair costs down over time, Bartanen explains. “Vehicles will be involved in slower speed collisions,” he says. “We’ll start seeing fewer cars that are total losses.”