Terrific Active Safety Tech Can Lead to Terrible Car Repair Bills


It’ll be a good while before you get to spend your life on the road in a fully self-driving car. And while that’s a bummer, there is plenty of that future in the cars you can go and buy today on the old-timey dealer lot. In recent years, active safety systems like automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, blind spot alerts, and more have spread throughout the automotive kingdom.

While these features are certainly saving lives by preventing or at least mitigating collisions, a new study from AAA shows they come with their own cost: cars with radars, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors are way more expensive to fix.

Fixing a minor fender bender ordinarily costs a few hundred bucks. But when that fender has a forward-facing radar? That adds $900 to $1,300 to the bill, AAA found. Smash up the radar in the back? That’ll be an extra $850 to $2,050. A new windshield with built-in cameras ups the price by $850 to $1,900.

These increased expenses may not trouble the folks who buy feature-stuffed luxury cars, but active safety tech has made its way into far cheaper models.

“It’s becoming every car,” says Mike Calkins, AAA’s manager of technical services, who worked on this research. Indeed, he and his team based their work on three rather quotidian models: a Toyota Camry sedan, a Nissan Rogue crossover, and a Ford F-150 pickup, all popular models in popular segments. The research team looked at the cost of the components that make those cars’ active safety systems work, how much labor it would take to replace them, and how much work it takes to calibrate newly installed radars and cameras. That last bit, which involves verifying how the fresh sensors pick up targets, gets expensive quick, since it can require special tools and hours of work. (A note to mechanics and dealers who pad their profits by maintaining gas-burning cars for revenue: In the coming age of electric vehicles, which require minimal upkeep, this sort of expertise could be a new revenue source.)

AAA isn’t looking to turn people away from the substantial safety benefits that come with active safety tech, Calkins says. Automatic emergency braking (which Calkins notes has saved him from a couple of likely crashes) is especially helpful. A recent study by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that the use of the safety feature led to a 13 percent drop in property damage liability claims, and a 23.2 percent drop in bodily injury claims. It’s a clear enough win that at the feds’ urging, 20 automakers have pledged to make it standard on all the cars they sell in the US by September 2022. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that will prevent 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries by 2025.

Calkins does, however, want drivers to be aware of extra costs they can incur if they do get into a collision with one of these vehicles, or have a stone crack their windshield, or wreck a side view mirror while backing out of the garage. One in three Americans can’t afford an unexpected $500 repair bill, AAA has found. And while it’s hard to pin down how this stuff affects insurance premiums—rates might stay the same, as fewer crashes balance out bigger repair bills—Calkins cautions against opting for a high deductible and lower rates. When your bumper is carrying this kind of tech, even a minor bump can prove costly, he says. “It takes nothing to get $2500 worth of collision damage.”

The good news is that as these systems evolve, the hardware on which they rely should keep getting cheaper. Though as automakers start putting more expensive lidar laser sensors into consumer vehicles, like Audi has done, the cost curve won’t go straight down.

So what’s the big takeaway here? Nobody rides (with such fancy tech, anyway) for free. And while thousands of dollars is serious money, especially for people buying cars like the Camry and F-150, the upside is an improved chance at staying out of a car crash—and maybe staying alive.

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