The Ins, Outs, and Arounds of Calibration
One of the most complex tasks for today’s technician is completing a vehicle’s ADAS calibration. According to the 2020 FenderBender Industry Survey, just 25 percent of responding shops said they were equipped to perform advanced driver-assistance systems calibrations. Investing in that type of ADAS work wasn’t easy at Anderson & Koch Ford in North Branch, Minn., but Scott Flom says it was well worth it. The body shop manager, who has 40 years of industry experience, says being equipped for ADAS work sets his employer apart from nearby competitors.
ADAS calibration refers to the fine tuning of the many sensors found throughout the vehicle that aid in a number of processes, from airbag deployment to lane-change assistance, to emergency braking. Calibration is necessary if the vehicle experiences a collision—regardless of the severity. If these intricate systems are not calibrated correctly, the vehicle could behave in unplanned ways, causing injury or even death.
“[Calibration] sets us apart because of our training, and our quality, and our commitment to our customers,” says Flom, whose four-person body shop staff produces an annual revenue of $1.2 million. “We want to be one step above everybody else.”
AirPro Diagnostics provides scanning, programming, and calibration assistance to shops across the country. Vice president of AirPro, Chuck Olsen, says there’s a spectrum of calibration, from scanning simple features like cruise control, to the more complex. Initially, there’s baseline calibration—inspecting the liftgate, window positions, seat weight, steering angle, and tire pressure monitoring systems, all of which need to be done before more complex ADAS calibration can begin.
Despite most vehicles having features that require some sort of calibration, it remains a much-discussed yet opaque topic, due to varying terminology between OEMs, exclusively sold parts, and a generally limited amount of information available on the topic.
Getting the calibration job done right, especially when it comes to ADAS, can literally mean the difference between life and death for those inside a vehicle. With such high stakes surrounding such a complicated and relatively new service, it can be a daunting task to get your shop calibration ready. FenderBender spoke to collision industry experts to get your questions answered.
A sample of systems that require calibration include:
Adaptive cruise control
Blind spot detection
Collision avoidance system
Lane departure warning
Traffic sign recognition
Tire pressure monitoring
Driver drowsiness detection
Hill descent control
Forward collision warning
Intelligent speed adaptation
Electric vehicle warning sounds
Surround view system
Creating a Calibration Station
If you want to perform calibrations in your shop, you first need the square footage. Whether you are doing static or dynamic calibrations, a dedicated space is essential and often required by most OEs as a part of their certification processes.
Static calibrations are done via targets on the shop floor to which the vehicle’s sensors can respond. Such targets are set up surrounding the vehicle, at varying distances, to test sensors’ depth perceptions and the vehicle’s response time. Dynamic calibration, on the other hand, refers to similar processes, but the vehicle is in motion throughout the test.
Jake Rodenroth, director of OEM and industry relations for asTech, a Texas-based diagnostic center, says ADAS sensors are surprisingly finicky. Even if you find an unused space large enough to set up targets around a vehicle, he says there can be unexpected sources of interference that the sensors will detect—details as minute as the type of coating used on the shop floor could come into play.
Rodenroth remembers a rare instance in which a floor’s sealant had reflective properties, throwing off calibrations. Technicians had measured the space, confirmed the floor was completely level, and were finally ready to begin repair processes when floor reflections began toying with the vehicle’s sensors.
Rodenroth says ADAS sensors have also been known to uncover obstacles even less noticeable than a bit of glare. Techs were trying to calibrate the sensors on a vehicle and the car refused to move in any direction, claiming there was an obstacle obstructing its view. The technicians scratched their heads and walked around the empty space, unable to find the sensor’s cause for concern. He says it was later revealed that a metal beam in between the walls is what gave the sensors pause, something the technicians never saw coming.
Flom, of Anderson & Koch Ford, estimates his facility required a roughly $40,000 investment, all told, to be ready for calibrations.
“You don’t just purchase [equipment], have it all show up, and be able to calibrate the next day,” he says. “It takes time.”
But, in the end he adds, it’s money well spent.
Indoor Calibration Station Checklist
At least 4,000 square feet
Variety of bulb tones
Sufficient height between vehicle and bulbs
Clean white wall
Clean black wall
Avoid warped walls
Noting Calibration Specifications
There’s no streamlined checklist for post-crash calibration procedures. Not only does each OEM have its own list of repairs and its own list of tools for the list of repairs, but they also vary in definition as to what sort of collision requires recalibration, says Rodenroth.
For instance, in some models an unexpected tap on the back bumper will most likely be harmless. If the vehicle has limited ADAS features, chances are hitting the curb while parking will not disrupt the vehicle’s cruise control capabilities, assures AirPro’s Chuck Olsen.
But for other vehicles, both new and used, a mild bump to one of the bumpers could have extreme consequences. Checking for daily updates on repair procedures has never been more vital than it is today with vehicles’ range of self-driving capabilities, says Olsen. What could be a little scratch for one vehicle could reset the automatic braking system in another. He says that only by checking the repair procedures on the day of the fix can techs be sure to cover all bases, handing the car back to its owner with full confidence that it’s properly repaired.
Pre-scans are essential to the calibration process, because they show which systems have been affected by bumps or more serious crashes. Rodenroth says they often identify new issues owners were unaware of. Experts across the industry agree that post-scans are just as important as pre-scans to ensure a vehicle is working as efficiently as it was when it first left the lot. But according to the 2020 FenderBender Industry Survey, 65 percent of respondents said they do not consistently perform pre- and post-repair scans. Of the shops that said they do perform ADAS services, however, 76 percent do pre- and post-repair scans. Regardless, though, the majority (64 percent) use a third-party service for scanning services.
One of the few topics OEMs agree on is the importance of road tests, which should be performed after a calibration is complete to ensure vehicles are back to their original state. More often than not, OEs will specify which road test—or tests—they want to run before returning a vehicle to its owner, says Rodenroth.
Road tests for ADAS calibrations vary depending on the type of calibration that was performed and the geographical location of the shop. For dynamic testing, a long stretch of straight road with a steady speed limit and no mandatory stops is ideal, says Olsen. This can be difficult to find, especially when many luxury cars, laden with advanced driver-assistance systems, are located in major metro areas.
For static test drives, Rodenroth says that usually a closed course is preferred, where technicians can plan the route in order to ensure the repair was performed correctly and that the vehicle responds as it should. This is an especially costly type of calibration, considering the space needed to perform it, as well as the controlled environment for the test drive.
Achieving Your Preferred Calibration Certification
If your shop has the funds and the manpower, in-house calibrations are the most convenient option.
Kye Yeung, owner of European Motor Car Works, in Costa Mesa, Calif., has two calibration technicians who are trained across all five OE brands in which the shop specializes.
In order to correctly and safely calibrate vehicles, technicians must first receive their certifications from the OEM. There are various ways to attain OEM certification training, from simply buying the correct equipment to completing subscription-based online modules, to even traveling across the world and having to prove yourself to the OE.
One of the more rare ways of gaining OEM calibration certification is by invitation. Mike Hubbard, head technician at European Motor Car Works, secured a sponsorship from Aston Martin. Per the requirements of the sponsorship, Hubbard has to travel to England for two weeks each year to stay up to date on the latest repair information.
“If you’re lucky enough to be selected to participate in an OE program, the tools themselves could cost a quarter million dollars,” says Yeung. Despite the costs, Scott Flom, the Minnesota shop owner, says being equipped to handle ADAS calibrations offers shops an advantage over competitors because it means they can effectively keep all repairs in-house.
“It’s a major benefit,” he says. “We don’t have drive time, we don’t have to worry about the sublet shop and how busy they are. … I mean, it’s a huge advantage to have control over the whole repair, versus sending it out to a sublet shop.”
But for smaller shops that can’t let their techs jet overseas for two weeks, Hubbard says there are other training options. Almost all automakers have subscription online repair manuals that can be accessed by technicians and engineers. Most subscriptions are offered for a daily, monthly, or yearly fee.
For $1,200 per year, shops can have year-long access to Land Rover’s repair manuals, says Hubbard, while access to Honda’s repair manual costs roughly $10 per day. Choosing to bring calibrations in house is an expensive endeavor upfront, and continual updates across tools, software, and equipment comes at a price.
“If you’re getting your [OEM calibration] certification, you just hope there are enough of those cars in your area to get a turn on investment,” Yeung warns.
Training modules, in tandem with repair manuals, could be the right fit for smaller shops, says Hubbard, unless a shop owner prefers to sublet his or her calibrations.
Hiring Out for Remote Calibrations
Yeung guesses there’s not a single independent shop that is able to perform calibrations across all automakers, based on the amount of time, money, and dedication that it would take. Here’s where services for remote calibration step in—according to the 2020 FenderBender Industry Survey, 64 percent of shops utilize third-party scanning services.
Yeung says there are two key players in the remote calibrations game: AirPro and asTech. The companies operate under the notion that knowledge is for all, especially when the landscape of the industry is constantly changing.
Both provide pre- and post-repair scan tools, diagnostic information, calibration services, select tools, and the appropriate software to independent shops, which don’t have the means to provide them their own.
Olsen says AirPro brings on shops as clients and acts as a guiding hand for technicians who are not calibration certified themselves. The steepest learning curve for technicians, he says, is learning how to manage the many software programs. The effectiveness of remote diagnostic capabilities often depends on the skill level of a shop’s technician, he says.
“You’ve got updates, logins, security measures, licensing agreements, and a whole lot more across all different computer systems—it can become very difficult very fast,” Olsen says. “For a shop to be able to do it independently and be able to bill appropriately is a challenge.” A unique obstacle that many shops may face, even if they are capable of doing their own calibration, is a shortage of devices.
Olsen says having calibration programs from two vehicle manufacturers on the same laptop renders it useless.
“You can spend hours trying to figure out why the program isn’t working, and that’s before you can even start working on the car,” he says.
AirPro tries to shoulder that burden as much as it can by sending PCs and laptops to its clients, says Olsen, as well as providing training and IT support. asTech provides similar services, as well.
From Calibration to Monetization
Yeung, owner of European Motor Car Works, says one of the industry’s most heated debates right now is whether or not you can turn a profit on calibrations. He readily acknowledges losing money performing calibrations, but believes they’re a necessity, nonetheless.
“We will continue to do [calibrations] regardless of profit or not, because of the oath we took to protect the customer,” says Yeung.
Even global repairer asTech, says Rodenroth, has yet to turn a profit from remote calibration. “We need to understand the process, their systems, and how they work,” he says. “Understanding the importance of calibrations should come before profiting from them.”
AirPro charges an initial fee, $89 to $129, for high-end luxury vehicles. That covers the pre-scan and includes diagnostic trouble codes. Any scans, modifications, or calibrations after the initial scan have additional prices, Olsen says. Rodenroth says asTech charges $119.95 for its initial scan, and an additional $50 per additional scan.
Yeung says one of the most convenient features of remote calibrations is the paper trail. Most insurers will only cover repairs that they can see in print. Keeping detailed documentation of each scan and test drive for insurers means they are much more likely to cover shops’ costs.
Your Next Step
Olsen warns against smaller shops falling behind the curve if they can’t find a way to keep up with the changing landscape. But fear not, FenderBender has your next steps. Rodenroth says asTech encourages facilities to begin by investing in calibration tools for their most-logged brands.
“If you’re primarily a Toyota facility, buy the targeting equipment for Toyotas, not Tesla,” he says. Outfitting your shop to be able to perform calibrations is a lengthy and expensive process. But, Olsen says, at minimum, shops should be setting goals to have a space that is ADAS-ready. “‘ADAS-ready’ means the shop has the knowledge, the software and the equipment to perform calibrations,” he says.
“Even if you can’t do calibrations, get the space ready. Then you can learn from the vehicles that come in, make note of what you see the most for calibration issues and OEs,” says Olsen. “Then you can determine what you want your shop to be able to address and in turn, plan for what you can feasibly afford while staying on top of the latest trend.”
The ADAS Shop
According to the 2020 FenderBender Industry Survey, only 25 percent of shop owners said they are equipped to perform ADAS calibrations. Who are these shop owners and what do they have in common? Well, many of them are like Kye Yeung:
Demographically, they are likely either an independent shop or a dealer with a large business: facility of 20,000 square feet or more, at least 11 employees, generate at least $5 million in annual revenue.
They tend to perform better, be it a touch time of 4-5 hours, average tech efficiency of 160% or higher, and average tech productivity of 110% or higher.
They likely have at least one OEM certification and regularly attend OEM-specific training, for which they pay employees to attend. They also overwhelmingly attend industry-specific technical training on a regular basis.
The Insurance Negotiation
It goes without saying that, whether you like it or not, negotiating with insurers is a component of the scanning and calibration process. Luckily, according to data from CollisionAdvice’s “Who Pays for What?” survey of nearly 1,000 shops, the majority of shops are having success in that department:
Of those that negotiate for pre- and post-repair scans, 84 percent and 88 percent, respectively, are paid always or most of the time
Of those that negotiate for seat calibration, 79 percent are paid always or most of the time.
Of those that negotiate for calibration of systems, 87 percent are paid always or most of the time.
Sidebar: Calibration Pricing
According to data from CCC Information Services, just over 2.5 percent of all appraisals in 2019 included an additional entry for “calibration”, “reprogram”, or “flash”—up nearly a full percentage point from 2017. There is, however, a wide range in these types of fees; the average fee per calibration estimate line (including flat fees and labor) was $232 in 2019 and the maximum fee on a single appraisal was $8,564.
One area where the industry could improve? Identifying needed calibrations on the front end. From that same data, less than 40 percent of calibration entries were included in the original estimate of record, and of those calibration with fees of more than $1,000, only 9 percent were included on the original estimate.