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The Impact of Automated Vehicle Technology

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The technology exists, and prototypes are already hitting the roads.

Fully automated vehicles that obey traffic signals, detect other cars and obstacles, and maneuver roadways without human interaction could realistically be available in less than five years. Nissan Motor Co. and Mercedes-Benz have both publicly promised fully automated vehicle designs to be commercially ready by 2020, Tesla hopes to release_notes an automated model by 2017, and Volvo is launching an autonomous vehicle pilot program this year.

It’s a trend that all shop owners should carefully watch and prepare for, says Daniel Gage, spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM).

“Virtually every other auto manufacturer is also working on an automated vehicle of some sort,” he says, noting that technology companies like Google and IBM are getting involved as well. “There will be automakers that have fully automated vehicles ready to roll out in a very short time frame.”

Although several societal questions remain before these cars become common (driver requirements, liabilities, standards, insurance policies and law enforcement), Gage says the movement will eventually succeed because auto industry experts and policymakers believe the technology will help minimize traffic accidents, improve traffic flow, reduce road congestion and boost fuel economy.

Research indicates the prominence of these vehicles could gain momentum relatively fast. Automated vehicle sales could hit 95.4 million annually by 2035—a number that would comprise 75 percent of all light vehicle sales in the U.S., according to a report from Navigant Research.

The use of fully automated vehicles will pose dramatic changes to the collision repair industry that shop owners should pay attention to now, says Tim Ronak, senior services consultant for AkzoNobel Automotive and Aerospace Coatings. Cars will be more computerized than ever before, which will drive changes in necessary training and knowledge for technicians, and cause shop owners to diversify their business initiatives in preparation.

Take Advantage of New Opportunities

Various collision avoidance features have already proven to reduce traffic accidents and claim severity, so fully automated vehicles are likely to impact collision-based work volume and revenue. Gage says roughly 85 percent of all traffic accidents are caused by human error and could be avoided with automated vehicles.

But that doesn’t mean the end of the collision industry, Ronak says, because the trend of automated vehicles will drive new business opportunities for shops. Two brand-new business markets will open that shops can specialize in to differentiate themselves from the competition and build sustainable business models.

First, Ronak says shops can get into the retrofit business. It’s possible that automated vehicle technologies could be retrofitted into existing cars that already contain certain collision avoidance systems. For example, Ronak says shops could add additional features to current vehicles with electric steering—such as the 2012 Chevy Malibu—to make the car fully automated.

“There could be a massive market for retrofitting through data ports,” Ronak says. “There’s going to be a whole new industry opening up in the retrofit of this technology.”

Another new market opportunity for shops, Ronak says, is sensor system maintenance. Automated vehicles will have a plethora of sensor and camera systems that will periodically require correction, calibration, adjustment, cleaning or replacement. He says there will be significant business opportunity for shops that are capable of performing those services.

“If you fail to leverage technology in your business, you will not stick around. But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom,” Ronak says. “I believe it will become a higher margin business due to the technology as we start to adapt. Shops just truly need to embrace technology as an advantage, and position themselves for the change by investing in and acquiring the right knowledge.”

Computerized Repairs

Although fully automated vehicles won’t be showing up in your shop for some time, it’s a good idea to start getting ready because there will be a large demand for reputable shops with automated vehicle capabilities in the future, Gage says.

“We’re going to have huge reliance on [independent] shops,” Gage says. “There are too many cars on the roads and too few dealerships to have people only go to authorized dealerships for repairs. We don’t have enough dealerships to service the entire fleet.”

Performing the work will require a specialized set of skills and abilities, Gage says. Automated vehicles will operate using dozens of driver-assist features in combination with several computer software programs and algorithms. That means repairers will not only need to be proficient collision technicians, but computer technicians as well. Acquiring electronic-based  training focused on understanding vehicle computerization will be essential in order to properly diagnose, repair and replace new sets of software, sensor systems, electronic components and wiring.

“It’s not just learning about the [existence] of those systems. There’s going to be a core level of knowledge about how those things work that will be important to have,” Ronak says. “Collision repairers need to understand these root technologies in order to troubleshoot the problems that cars are going to have in the future. It will be about sensors, scanners and diagnostics.”

Get Educated

Little information is currently available regarding the specifics of automated vehicle repair, but Gage says automakers will be committed to making information accessible as soon as it’s available. He says the industry will see increased usage of online training modules, and manufacturing companies will work closely with industry associations to disseminate information and training.

Richard Wallace, director of training systems analysis for the Center of Automotive Research (CAR), says the industry will also experience changes in curriculum among secondary and post-secondary schools. Many vocational schools have already started developing programs that are more heavily focused on electronics, software and radio communications.

Right now, Wallace says the best way for shops to proactively prepare for automated vehicles is to get closely familiarized with all of the electronic and driver assist features that already exist on late model vehicles. Many components making automated vehicles a reality are used now, such as navigation, adaptive speed control, automatic braking, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and automatic parking. Wallace says use of those systems will be increasingly prominent until fully automated vehicles hit the market, and obtaining training on those components is an effective way to incrementally advance knowledge and skills.

“As more and more companies make these standard on vehicles, those are going to be components included in the automated vehicle,” Gage says. “The phase-in of those technologies will be incremental and evolutionary.”  


Consumer Perception

According to a poll of 2,000 American drivers released by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in June 2013, 59 percent of consumers value new driver-assist technologies in automobiles and want to assess those systems when buying new vehicles. 

Still, significant consumer skepticism remains on the idea of fully autonomous vehicles. Only 33 percent of consumers believe fully autonomous vehicles are a good idea, while roughly 42 percent believe they are a bad idea and 24 percent say they are undecided. 

“Fully autonomous vehicles are probably a generation away. We still have a long way to go before we get consumer acceptance,” Gage says. “We see consumers wanting driver-assist features, but they’re reluctant to give up complete control.”

The following data reveals the mind sets American consumers have toward automated vehicles:

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