“Given how technology-laden and potentially expensive to repair cars have become, it doesn’t always require a huge impact to cause considerable damage,” says Scott Hamilton-Cooper, director of operations at Accident Exchange.
The issue of write-offs was laid bare recently at an event attended by insurance and body shop specialists at Thatcham Research, the motor insurance industry’s research centre in Berkshire where, among other things, vehicles’ insurance groups are decided.
“Training organisations, body shops and all those in the independent sector can’t keep pace with the speed of change in vehicle technology,” says Jason Moseley, executive director of the National Association of Bodyshops. “For example, there’s more computer code in a current Mercedes-Benz S-Class than in a Boeing Dreamliner.”
This increase in complexity means body shops are taking longer to repair cars and charging more to do so as a result, forcing insurers to write off some cars that are still relatively young.
Concerned by the trend, car makers have been heavily discounting replacement parts in a practice called ‘total loss avoidance’, intended to save cars from being written off early in their life.
Malcolm Neil, from claims management firm Inter-est, agrees that manufacturers’ rapidly evolving techniques of vehicle construction and the repair challenges new cars present are a growing concern.
“Years ago, cars were all of similar construction, but not any more,” he says.
“You can’t just chop out damaged panels on a modern car, because you might cut through a sensor or its wires. For example, to replace the front wing on the current BMW 5 Series takes three times longer than on its predecessor, because first you’ve got to strip out the whole bootlid and disconnect all sorts of ECUs and batteries in it.”
Pointing to a Volvo XC90 on a neighbouring stand, Neil’s colleague, Andrew Higson, raises another issue.
“You can no longer patch up a bumper after a light impact, because the extra layers of paint and filler will affect the calibrations or performance of the sensors fitted to it,” he explains. “You have to buy a new one, and they aren’t cheap.”
If a new bumper is fitted, the sensors must be coded to the vehicle and then calibrated. At the Thatcham event, Neil Hilton, of Hella Gutmann Diagnostics, was demonstrating his company’s sensor calibration system, which costs £11,000.