Yet many repair shops don’t bother. They lack the costly equipment, trained technicians and even the floor space needed to calibrate safety sensors. And so there are thousands of ‘fixed’ cars driving around with unreliable ADAS sensors that may not warn the driver of a potential disaster.
“I think most stores definitely don’t do it,” said Kevin Gallerani, owner of Cape Auto Body in Plymouth and president of the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Massachusetts, which represents the state’s auto body shops. “I hate saying this. I’ll probably get killed for this article, but there has to be a wake up call.
A recent nationwide survey by the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety found that about 90 percent of new car dealerships perform proper calibration with every repair. It is mainly the small independent shops that fall short.
“The stores can’t keep up with technology and don’t invest enough time and money in their people and equipment,” said Mike Johnson, owner of Crown Collison Solutions in Bridgewater. “They’re in survival mode.”
According to CCC Intelligent Solutions, an auto insurance software company, about 60 percent of cars in the US have at least one ADAS system on board. Rear-mounted sensors to aid parking are by far the most common. But other advanced systems once found only on luxury models are becoming standard features. These include blind spot warning alarms, systems to prevent drivers from straying from the wrong lane, adaptive headlights that turn towards the car and automatic emergency braking to avoid collisions with pedestrians or other cars.
These systems rely on data received from cameras or radar units mounted in various locations on the car: the front and rear bumpers, side mirrors, door panels or behind the windshield. If changes are made to any of these components, it’s time to recalibrate.
“It can be as simple as removing the bumper cover to replace a water pump on a vehicle,” says Chris Chesney, vice president of training at Repairify, a Texas-based company that provides Internet-based support to auto repair shops. ADAS-equipped cars have radar transmitters under the bumpers, which must be checked for proper alignment, Chesney said. Other ADAS features, such as steerable headlights, must be recalibrated every time the car undergoes a simple wheel alignment.
“Every manufacturer has a position statement that a calibration should be completed after virtually every repair,” said Sean O’Malley, senior testing coordinator at the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety.
O’Malley said his organization has no data on whether misaligned ADAS sensors cause traffic accidents. Investigators will blame the human driver and ignore the possibility of a faulty radar, he said.
But one of O’Malley’s colleagues noted that her car, equipped with an emergency braking system, gave a warning if it went under a bridge, but not if it got too close to the car in front. Technicians found that the car’s forward-facing radar was pointing upwards instead of straight ahead – a minor flaw that could have caused a rear-end collision.
Calibrations are best performed in a specially designed service compartment with no clutter or bright colors to confuse the vehicle’s cameras. The floor should also be as flat as possible for accurate alignment of the sensors.
The shop also needs a range of calibration equipment that can cost $25,000 or more. This includes a series of targets placed at precise locations around the car. The car measures the light and radar waves bouncing off these targets and uses the data to recalibrate the sensors, using a computer connected to the vehicle’s data port.
Some vehicles require a further step: dynamic calibration, which is performed while the car is moving.
A total recalibration job can take several hours and can cost between $450 and $1,200, said Paul Chaet, general manager of Allston Collision Center in Boston. His shop cannot afford the large investment in calibration equipment, so Chaet outsources it to a factory in Dedham.
Gary Machiros, owner of Angie’s Service in Newbury, has his own calibration job, but says many of his colleagues don’t. Cost aside, there is often a reluctance to master the technology. “Some of these body shops are old-school guys,” Machiros said, “and they’re not good with computers.”
Gallerani also blames the Massachusetts insurance law, which sets a minimum wage of $40 per hour for auto body repairs, the lowest rate of any U.S. state. “It’s killing the industry in Massachusetts,” he said. A bill to raise the minimum to $55 an hour died in the Massachusetts legislature earlier this year. Gallerani said that with pay scales so low, bodyshops can’t afford to install calibration equipment and train their employees on how to use it.
But the insurance institute’s O’Malley is optimistic that independent auto repair shops will eventually get on board. “The problem is slowly solving itself,” he said.
In the meantime, owners of ADAS-equipped cars should fend for themselves by asking technicians a simple question: “Do you calibrate?”