Safety tech upsides versus crash repair downsides
02 August 2018
Author: Guy Bird
The wider availability and take-up of safety technology is reducing accidents, but when they do happen, there's often an increasing financial sting in the tail for fleets. Guy Bird reports.
More safety is always a good thing, right? To take just one great and high-profile recent example, the benefits of automated emergency braking (AEB) are already associated with a 38% reduction in accidents from its fitment - and it's a piece of kit that is increasingly becoming standard in the UK new car market. But with the addition of AEB, when accidents do take place, their type and cost is changing too, and not always for the better.
Chris Weeks, director of the National Body Repair Association (NBRA), part of the well-established Retail Motor Industry Federation umbrella organisation, is well placed to comment and gives a perfect fleet car example. "Between the Golf mk6 and mk7 (with AEB fitted), Volkswagen has noticed its cars are having fewer motorways rear-end shunts," he begins. "But when accidents do happen, as there are more sensors on the newer car, the price of repair is increasing. The frequency is reducing, but the costs of a claim are increasing."
This idea is expanded upon further, and in excellent depth by way of studying carmaker's parts sales, in the automotive research group ICDP's recent summer 2018 report called 'Disruptive Change - Real or imagined?'. "One carmaker found that their parts sales were stable, but when they dug a bit deeper, it found that although the value was the same, the mix had changed with fewer front-end parts being sold and more rear-end parts. This was due to their AEB-equipped car stopping when it detected an obstacle, but the non-AEB equipped car behind not being able to react as quickly. So a front-end crash became a rear-end crash," the report states. Repair costs are certainly rising, as figures from long-standing experts in the crash estimating field Audatex attest. In 2007, the average estimate breakdown (excluding VAT and discounts) was £1,163, including paint, parts and labour. By 2013, that figure had risen to £1,346 and just four years later, in 2017, shot up again to £1,558 - a whopping 33% - with the Association of British Insurance putting the rise down in significant part to "the increasing complexity and technology now incorporated into vehicles".
Manufacturer liaison director Mark Jowsey, of whole-life costs experts Kee Resources backs up this theory, noting that "What we would have historically expected to see on top-end products is washing down the hierarchy of vehicle types and trims quite quickly. LED headlamps are just one example." This complexity extends not just to the amount of extra safety kit on board - for example, a single laser headlamp replacement part on the new Audi A8 is an eye-watering £4,000 plus extensive calibration costs - but also in how the vehicle is made, and what it is made of. Almost every media press conference for a new car now takes time out to mention how complicated the structure of its latest model is, from various material types like regular and high-strength steel, aluminium and carbon fibre, to how varied the techniques to attach them together safely are, from spot-welding and riveting to bonding as well.
In the short-to-medium term, Weeks sees this increasing complexity resulting in fewer and fewer bodyshops qualified enough to take on the repair and the associated recalibration that, in turn for the fleet manager, leads to vehicles staying off-road for longer periods. "It's definitely causing more downtime," Weeks quickly confirms. "Following repairs, there's so much more calibration needed, even after a windscreen replacement - due to the potential radar, lidar, lane-assist and more that's embedded in the glass to help determine where the vehicles in front are, relative to yours. Even a system that is half a degree out can cause a vehicle to think it's tens of metres closer or further away than it actually is, and significantly affect the automated emergency braking."
Delays and downtime
To add to the problem Weeks sighs, saying "Insurers right now aren't paying for the extra work. They're setting standard pricing, so it's not worth the independent body repairers investing in the kit to do it. Consequently, they're having to take the cars back to the manufacturers to have their advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) reset and typically have only been able to pass on the costs they incur themselves. So there's a lot of delay, because independent repairers have to book the cars into main dealers. It's a real challenge." ICDP's findings also back up Weeks' opinion, and on a Europe-wide level too. "These scheduled recalibrations can extend the key-to-key total elapsed time of a repair by perhaps another five days on top of a ten-day base. It is also unpredictable as the dealer does not prioritise these tasks over their own immediate customer base." For his part, Weeks' NBRA organisation is trying to negotiate cheaper ADAS reset checks for repairers with carmakers' dealers, as it's such a key technology and is only going to become more prevalent in the future, with IDCP predicting a high 72% penetration of the UK car parc by 2030. Weeks is also attempting to make the process easier to arrange for repairers via adapted Epyx software, so between the two moves, they will be able to build a small margin into the process to incentivise them to undertake the recalibration quicker.
More write-offs to come?
With parts and reset prices for more high-tech on the rise, will insurance 'write-offs' be more of a problem in the near future too? "I think it's highly likely," continues Weeks. "For the fleet operator with a newish vehicle and a lot of equity in the car probably less so, but in a five or six-year-old car, I could easily see a car getting written off for the slightest of things."
This feeling is backed up by IDCP's predictions for the wider market across the four key European car sectors - UK, France, Germany and Italy. By 2030, with the increasing autonomous tech content and its difficulty to repair and recalibrate, the report assumes that "the proportion of total losses will increase by 39% on average in 2030 compared to 2016".
Not all new safety kit is causing such a spike in cash repair though. The wide and now mature proliferation of parking sensors on vehicles of varying price ranges in the car parc is one example. "In a small prang they rarely get damaged," reasons Weeks. "And when they do get damaged they are reasonably well protected. Bumpers tend to deform a bit and sensors can be refitted. You might lose one out of the four of them at the rear, but they're not massively expensive now." Cameras located in front bumpers can be a different kettle of fish though. "At the front end, radars are incredibly expensive to replace," says Weeks, "maybe £1,500 including the reset. It's a lot of dough." One carmaker interviewee for the ICDP's report said something similar: "The cost of the camera located in the bumper was the same as the cost of the bumper itself, effectively doubling the cost of the accident."
What does this all mean for the fleet manager wanting to control costs while balancing the corporate responsibility of its company profile, and the happiness and well-being of its drivers? In simple terms, it's about choosing your safety devices with care. Automated emergency braking, despite its recalibration issues after a crash, is, according to the ICDP, by far the most effective new safety device of recent times because in simple terms it stops cars hitting each other so hard, or at all - and results in a 38% reduction in the number of accidents. This percentage is head and shoulders above the next best recent safety innovations, including forward-collision warning (8% reduction), blind-spot monitoring (7%), lane-departure warning (3%) and adaptive headlights (2.5%) - see separate table for the summary. Ultimately, fleet managers need to weigh up the real benefits of often costly safety, ask more questions about those items' repair costs and also consider the insurance implications.
As accidents overall are predicted by ICDP to reduce by 15% by 2030, the number of incidents managed by insurance companies is set to increase by 8%, "due to the higher penetration of comprehensive insurance schemes, the higher take-up rate of mobility schemes and full-service bundles". So investigate the safety you need for your fleet by all means, but check out their efficacy and cost before you commit, or you might have to prepare for a few nasty surprises.