Car safety technology - how it's sending repair prices soaring

Active safety systems are now commonplace on new cars. We explain why they’re so important, what the next developments will be and how they're pushing up car repair prices...

Car safety technology - how it's sending repair prices soaring

Why is the latest safety technology sending repair prices soaring?

The camera and radar-based technology behind the latest car safety systems can prove expensive to repair or replace if they are damaged. And because the sensors they use are often housed in bumpers, they are vulnerable.

Last year, What Car?’s sister publication Autocar ran a Jeep Renegade for six months and its custodian was amazed by the cost of the damage caused to it after an accidental collision with a pheasant. Although there was no external damage to the Renegade’s front bumper, the impact had shattered the sensor behind it, causing a warning light to illuminate in the instrument panel. When the car was taken to a local Jeep dealer to investigate, the service assistant presented him with a repair estimate of more than £900. This was because the Renegade was fitted with forward collision warning, as part of its AEB system, which had a sensor in the front bumper that had been damaged.

Not only would the sensor in the bumper have to be replaced, but a second one positioned behind the windscreen would also have to be recalibrated so that they would work properly. On top of that, our writer was told that the equipment needed to calibrate the system was highly specialised, so the Renegade couldn’t be fixed by a local dealer. Instead, it had to go back to Jeep’s UK head office to be repaired. As a result, the work wasn’t completed until almost a month after the accident. The cost eventually came to £526, excluding labour.

What Car? editor Steve Huntingford was landed with an even more expensive AEB sensor-related repair bill after his Volvo S90’s rear bumper was dented when the car was being used by a colleague. It was only a small bump, so Steve was expecting a cost of a few hundred pounds, but he was horrified to be told the bill would be £1442.

The reason for the high cost is that the radar for the S90’s blindspot warning system is behind the bumper, and it’s so sensitive that if the area is coated with any more than two layers of paint, this could interfere with the signal and stop the system from working. So the damage couldn’t simply be repaired; instead, a whole new bumper had to be fitted.


Car safety technology - how it's sending repair prices soaring

Other factors upping the cost of repairs

Vehicle repair bills have increased by 32% over the past three years to an average of £1678, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI). Many industry experts believe that repair work to ADAS has contributed to this rise. 

“If front or rear bumpers, front or rear screens, and even door mirrors and headlamps in some cases, are damaged, repair costs will increase because of either the replacement or recalibration of ADAS sensors,” said Chris Weeks, director of the National Body Repair Association. 

Weeks explained the importance of the recalibration of an ADAS system after a windscreen replacement: “If the windscreen isn’t calibrated, a lane departure warning system could allow a car to cross out of a lane without warning the driver because it thinks the car is in a different position than it actually is, relative to the road markings it can see.”

Our research confirmed that it’s a similarly expensive affair if a car with ADAS suffers from a damaged windscreen. What Car? obtained quotes for replacement windscreens for four of the cars in our long-term test fleet. They ranged from £506 for a new screen and sensor recalibration for our Peugeot 3008 to £840 for the same work to be carried out on our Mazda CX-5. The most shocking quote we received was £770 for a new windscreen for our Ford Fiesta – a smaller and cheaper car than the likes of the CX-5. That price is five times more than the £156 you’d pay for a windscreen for a 2008 Fiesta.

And if you compare replacement costs for new cars with and without ADAS fitted, the difference can be massive. Car safety organisation Thatcham Research states that the cost of replacing a windscreen on a Ford Focus is 123% higher if it’s fitted with ADAS. For a Volkswagen Golf, the hike is 78%.

Will larger repair bills make insurance rates rise?

If you make a claim on your insurance to cover the cost of a windscreen or ADAS sensor, your premiums could go up. There could also be wider implications for the long-term cost of insurance for all drivers.

Windscreen-mounted ADAS technology is currently fitted to around 6% of vehicles on British roads, and this is likely to rise to 40% by 2020, so repair costs, along with insurance costs, look set to spiral.

So, what can be done to cut these costs? Thatcham formed a working group with manufacturers last year to address the spiralling repair costs associated with collision avoidance and driver assistance systems.

Thomas Hudd, repair technology centre operations manager at Thatcham, said: “There is a lack of information available for repairers to allow them to understand if a car has ADAS fitted and, if so, how it might affect the cost of the repair. We would like vehicle manufacturers to make ADAS fitment data available at VIN [vehicle identification number] level, so that repairers can better understand the scope of the work required up front.

“There should also be a standard fault system to advise drivers, and repairers, if the ADAS is not working – just as there are for other key vehicle functions. Drivers need this to raise awareness of ADAS and specifically whether a certain system is working, while repairers need it so they are able to identify whether a car is fitted with ADAS and to help indicate if any calibration work has been successful.”

Hudd also pointed out that cars with ADAS should attract lower premiums in the future because the technology ensures they are involved in fewer accidents. He claimed that low-speed AEB could reduce the number of real-world rear-end crashes by 38%.

In the long term, it’s also likely that more sophisticated driver assistance systems will be developed with sensors that can recalibrate themselves, so the cost of staying safe will come down in the future.

What Car?'s five-star cars with five-star safety

If you're looking to buy a new car, then safety is probably a high priority, but that doesn't mean you have to settle for something that's badly compromised in other areas.

As well as gaining the full five stars in the Euro NCAP safety tests, these models also have a five-star What Car? rating.

Choose any of them and you'll be getting a brilliant all-rounder that also happens to be one of the safest cars on the road.


Seat Ibiza


Car safety technology - how it's sending repair prices soaring

The Seat Ibiza is the best small car on the market, offering tidy handling, a comfortable ride, low running costs and a surprisingly spacious and practical interior. It really has no major weaknesses.

Euro NCAP scores:

  • Adult occupant protection 92%
  • Child occupant protection 77%
  • Pedestrian protection 71%

Read our full Seat Ibiza review

Find a great Seat Ibiza deal


Car safety technology - how it's sending repair prices soaring

The Skoda Karoq is a first rate family-sized SUV that has a smart and sturdy interior and plenty of standard kit that makes it good value for money. Although it's based on the same platform as the Volkswagen T-Roc and Seat Ateca, it's slightly smaller than the VW and has a more comfort-oriented ride than the Seat.

Euro NCAP scores:

  • Adult occupant protection 93%
  • Child occupant protection 79%
  • Pedestrian protection 73%

Read our full Skoda Karoq review

Find a great Skoda Karoq deal

Volkswagen Touran


Car safety technology - how it's sending repair prices soaring

There are cheaper and bigger MPVs, but none that so brilliantly balance all the things that matter to big families. Crucially, the Touran is more practical than all of its similarly priced rivals, it's better to drive and beats them all hands-down for interior quality and ease of use. It also has better safety credentials than most.

Euro NCAP scores:

  • Adult occupant protection 88%
  • Child occupant protection 89%
  • Pedestrian protection 71%

Read the full Volkswagen Touran review