Five facts driving the repair of the latest electronic systems

Sept. 1, 2016
Here are five collision repair facts, provided by I-CAR and some of the most cutting-edge repairers in the country, to keep in mind the next time a late model vehicle rolls into your shop.

When Ford rolled out its latest F-150 pickup truck, most industry eyes were focused on the aluminum-intensive body and the impressive 700-pound weight reduction. Considering this development and the fact that Ford had firmly staked a notable part of its business on building high-production aluminum vehicles, the attention was well deserved. Notable too were the thousands of shops preparing for this revolution by investing in the tools and training to repair aluminum.

(Photo courtesy of Ford) The thirteenth generation of the Ford F-150 arrived with a new high tech structure and, just as notable, a host of advanced electronic safety systems.

While much of the collision industry was focusing on one revolution, the F-150 also was bringing another — arguably equally significant — development to the forefront. The top selling vehicle in the country for 34 years running carried with it a laundry list of the latest active safety and convenience technologies, including:

• adaptive cruise control and collision warning

• lane keep assist

• cross traffic alert

• active parking assist

• active grill shutters

• 360-degree cameras and

• blind spot detection.

While these high-tech systems have been available on a number of Ford vehicles for several years, Ford made sure all of them would be showcased on a redesigned model certain to grab headlines and one that sells more than 700,000 units annually. The repair challenges these systems provide can be just as difficult as those offered by aluminum parts, and in some cases are even more trying. If recent history is any indication, shops probably are going to need extra help diagnosing and repairing problems on systems that can be damaged or require recalibration/alignment after a relatively light collision or as part of another repair.

Here are five collision repair facts, provided by I-CAR and some of the most cutting-edge repairers in the country, to keep in mind the next time a late model vehicle rolls into your shop.

Fact 1: Many shops will need help from a dealer or repair specialist

Currently, many shops outsource airbag repairs to specialists who are better able to keep up with changes to SRS technology, which can vary greatly from one vehicle band and model to another. Indeed, asking specialists to handle work with significant liability issues is probably the safest route for a shop to take.

Airbag specialists offer convenient services since they typically come to shops and perform work on site. This isn't going to be the case with many systems that provide services such as pedestrian and vehicle collision warnings, says Ron Reichen, SCRS Immediate Past Chairman and owner of Precision Body and Paint headquartered in Beaverton, Ore. Reichen’s shop holds 20 OEM repair certifications, including ones from Audi, Porsche,  Mercedes-Benz and Acura, so his business services many of the latest electronic systems entering the new vehicle market.

Reichen says recently his shop recently repaired a Mercedes-Benz with light rear bumper damage that required recalibration of the lift gate sensor, lane change warning system and park assist. The lane change sensor had to be cleared by a Mercedes-Benz dealer using an OEM scan tool.

(Photo courtesy of Ford) Simply recalibrating systems such as park assist can involve numerous steps, along with special scanning tools and equipment.

Reichen doesn’t expect this scenario to change anytime soon for most repairers. “Right now we’re able to diagnose and clear about 50 to 60 percent of the codes we find using an aftermarket tool,” he says. “That’s pretty good, but you’re still looking at going to a dealer.”

Rick Zirbes, president and CEO at Data Crossover Inc. and Dick and Rick's Auto Upholstery in Minneapolis, offers another solution. His businesses also can perform dealer services. That's because he purchases all the available OEM scan tools and accompanying equipment — a financial proposition that many shops can't explore.

"It's very costly," explains Zirbes. "For most shops, it would only make sense to buy the OEM scan tools for models they see a lot of." Aftermarket tools remain a viable option for many repairs, but Zirbes says they're typically two to four years behind the most current manufacturer equipment. That makes a trip off site for some of the latest vehicle models a growing necessity.

Fact 2: Electronic repairs will become increasingly complex

Ford's parking assist is something of a wonder to behold since it can effectively glide an F-150 into a parking space without so much as grazing any nearby objects. Repairing or recalibrating it is far from a simple tasking involving clearing a code. I-CAR notes that if any of the sensors needs replaced they must be recalibrated both with a scan tool and a set of fabricated pylons.

Recalibrating the F-150's 360-degree camera system similarly involves a special mat and a level repair area with no more than one inch of height variation from the front of the truck to the rear. Adequate calibration space also be allocated — six feet of clear space on each side of the vehicle with seven feet needed in front of the vehicle and 11 feet in the back.

Fortunately, Ford has supplied repair procedures that outline all these steps. Reichen says that elsewhere in the industry, there are gaps in formation. For example, a sensor for the Mercedes-Benz lane change warning system sits behind the bumper cover. The sensor will work only with no more than one additional base and clear coat. Reichen says that information isn't yet widely available; insurers adjusters, in particular, haven't come up to speed on it. Reichen further notes that similar information gaps exist for related systems — though information providers are, he says, working hard to include them.

In other cases, shops must be mindful of work that might appear unrelated to sophisticated electronic systems but still can affect how these systems work. For example, the F-150 lane keep assistance system require specially aligned cameras that must be realigned if the truck undergoes a number of repairs or alterations, including:

• front airbag deployment

• replacement of the interior mirror

• changing tire size

• windshield replacement

• suspension repair or realignment.

Fact 3: Cycle times will be affected

Increasingly complicated and time-consuming repairs also will create difficulties in reducing or even maintaining cycle times. Reichen notes that one part of the problem lies in simply diagnosing damage to advanced systems. Unless shops make time to download information from the VIN of each repair, they can easily overlook what systems a vehicle has and in the process any damage they may have received.

(Photo courtesy of Ford) Advanced high-tech systems have made their way to a number of popular and affordable vehicles, which means shops will need consider their repair impact on cycle time.

Reichen has been training his staff to communicate better with customers before a repair to determine what systems a vehicle possesses and from there if customers have noticed any malfunctions. During damage analysis and blueprinting, estimators will need to determine how the work will be performed and whether it could requiring outsourcing. "Sometimes you need to add in two or three extra days to schedule work by a dealer and the time spent transporting the vehicle to and from another location," Reichen says.

All this translates into a need for even more precise estimates, along with a strategy to reduce or better anticipate stresses on vehicle repair times. Handling those should involved extra communication with insurers to keep them educated on the changing repair environment.  

Fact 4: Associated costs will continue to rise

Part of this conversion will involve explaining, and documenting if necessary, rising repair costs. Reichen notes that a light hit on a Porsche bumper can easily result in a $2,200 repair bill — with $600 of that going just for system recalibration and alignment.

Shops also will need to invest more in training and subscriptions to OEM repair procedures. Zirbes says electronic systems demand particularly ordered repair steps, which must be followed to the letter for a proper repair to be completed. Considering the lack of experience many technicians have with these systems and the demanding nature of the work, training becomes more important than ever, along with access to updated, accurate work procedures.

(Photo courtesy of Ford) Acquiring OEM scanning tools to perform work on the latest advanced systems, such as pedestrian detection, can be financially prohibitive for many shops. This makes outsourcing these repairs to dealers and specialists a necessity, one that could reshape how much of the industry conducts its business.

Further, Zirbes notes that shops shouldn't expect high-tech repairs to get any easier. He explains that OEMs are moving away from "plug and play" replacement components and focusing on procedures that will have shops performing more demanding work such as reprogramming vehicle computers in order to make automobiles more "hack proof."

These factors can make some electronic system repairs more than a bit imposing. Here, too, Zirbes says education will play a significant role since it can help repairers settle on their best repair option, even if that means recognizing the best repair is beyond their capabilities and should be outsourced.

Fact 5: Most vehicles will have today's advanced electronic systems sooner than expected

Making this kind of decisions could get more difficult and important as growing numbers of vehicle brands and models adopt advanced technologies available now and coming to market soon. A little over five years ago, backup cameras were popular options found almost exclusively on luxury models or as aftermarket additions. Today, the vast majority of trucks, SUVs, intermediate and compact vehicles offer them. Systems like those on the F-150 similarly are making their way into a number of other high production cars and trucks. These developments are part of a larger trend the automotive has experience during the last decade as electronic advancements — largely due to their greater affordability and the public's affinity for technology — become available ever more quickly to a larger base of customers.

Faced with this prospect, repairers very soon will have some serious decisions to make on how this work will get done and by whom. Zirbes says the collision industry could be headed down the same road as the medical field — where specialists have taken over a vocation once mainly populated by general practitioners. Repairers too eventually might need to concentrate on specialties and share work, which would mean another remaking of the industry landscape.

Regardless of just how this revolution reshapes the collision market, Reichen says repairers could help themselves prepare by adjusting their views of their work. Gone are the days when shops could focus almost solely on bending metal, fitting parts and applying finishes. "We're no longer a trade and really haven't been for some time," says Reichen. "Collision repair today is a skilled profession."

That profession is facing some big changes.

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