Illustration revealing the hidden cost of car safety features
Illustration: Sinelab

After the windshield cracked on Ted Hine’s 2017 Subaru Forester, he was shocked when a dealership quoted $1,400 for a replacement. Safelite AutoGlass, a national auto glass repair and replacement chain, was cheaper but still surprisingly high at $910. Hine recalled paying $150 as recently as five years ago for a similar repair on his previous car, and a mobile technician did the job right in his driveway.

“I’m 74 years old and retired, on a limited fixed income,” Hine said. “I can’t afford $900-plus for a windshield every time a truck randomly throws a rock at me.”

See how advanced safety tech affects car repairs.

The 5 questions to ask when shopping for your next new car.

Hine’s Subaru has EyeSight, a suite of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that includes forward collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning (LDW), and adaptive cruise control (ACC). EyeSight’s components include a pair of cameras mounted inside the windshield that help ACC and other convenience and advanced safety systems, such as AEB, calculate the distance from the car to objects ahead. A windshield replacement for Hine’s Subaru now requires glass that’s more complex to manufacture, so the cameras can see clearly. The cameras must also be recalibrated by technicians using expensive equipment.

More on Car Safety

EyeSight is available on most new Subarus. The manufacturer isn’t the only one with this type of system. Most new cars and trucks for sale are now available with various ADAS features.

The upside is that motor vehicles are becoming much safer. For example, rear-end collision rates in vehicles with both FCW and AEB were 46 percent lower than those without these systems, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. The study showed that lane departure crashes fell 21 percent for cars with LDW and lane keeping assistance (LKA), and that having a backup camera and other systems, including reverse AEB with rear cross traffic alert, reduced backup collisions by 81 percent, among other safety findings.

The downside is that repairs cost more when ADAS components are damaged or even jarred slightly in minor collisions. That’s because the sensors integral to ADAS usually live in peripheral, easy-to-damage areas—inside bumpers and windshields, and in side mirrors. So a minor collision or a cracked windshield can become a major expense.

Consumer Reports believes that all cars should come standard with AEB, pedestrian detection, FCW, and BSW. CR experts say that with fewer crashes over time because of the wider adoption of collision avoidance systems, drivers should save money, even if collision repair bills are higher.

“Yes, crashes happen, and with ADAS onboard, they could cost more to repair today,” says Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing. “But the equation should eventually work out in the driver’s favor because as we reduce on-the-road mishaps, we’ll save on repairs in the future. We value proven safety systems because they dramatically reduce minor and more serious crashes.”

CR and other car experts stress that ADAS features must be repaired correctly or safety systems can become disabled or function improperly and cause dangerous errors.

“Most forward-facing cameras used for ADAS are mounted to the glass in or around the rearview mirror, and those cameras don’t know where they are in relation to the glass,” says Jon Cardi, a senior vice president at Safelite AutoGlass. “A minute movement at the windshield could translate to a big error several hundred feet ahead at highway speeds.”

Not all collision repair shops are qualified to fix ADAS-equipped vehicles, and information about how to repair these vehicles isn’t always available, creating uncertainty for insurers and repair shops.

“We should think differently about what constitutes a fender bender,” said Joe Schneider, a KPMG adviser to insurance companies. “Stuff that people wouldn’t have even filed a claim for in years past [now] has a technological component that affects the safety and operability of the vehicle.”

“Repair costs have been going up in recent years as vehicles become more expensive to repair, so that can be expected to put pressure on insurance premiums,” says Bob Passmore, assistant vice president of auto claims with the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA). “The hope is that the technology will reduce the number of crashes in the longer term, offsetting for the increase in repair costs.”

Technology has been evolving at a faster rate than some repair shops can keep up with in terms of new equipment and training, says Jeff Evanson, chief operating officer at Smart Express, a company that provides van-based mobile calibration units to collision repair shops. “As these systems become more complicated, you’re never going to be able to use a shade-tree mechanic to fix them,” he says.

“We’re seeing more and more cars declared total losses because of the cost of repairing them.”

Tim Cook, owner of “A” Auto Body Shop in the Richmond, Va., area.

Safety Tech Goes Mainstream

The development of ADAS represents one of the biggest steps forward in safety technology since the introduction of airbags in the 1970s and the requirement in 2012 that all vehicles have electronic stability control.

ADAS can flash warnings when a collision seems imminent, stop a car if the driver fails to respond, alert the driver when the vehicle is swerving out of its lane, steer the vehicle back into its lane, alert the driver to vehicles in blind spots, keep a driver from backing into objects, and maintain a safe following distance using adaptive cruise control. The systems operate by using an array of sensors feeding information about speed and distance into the vehicle’s computer system, which then informs its braking, steering, and engine control modules.

“Vehicles with ADAS features are less likely to crash,” said Matt Moore, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), a nonprofit that researches vehicle insurance losses and is part of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). “Not only do they prevent claims for vehicle damage, some are also associated with reducing the frequency of bodily injury liability claims.”

ADAS technology has trickled down in the past two years from luxury cars into more affordable models. According to AAA, more than 90 percent of new vehicles in 2018 had at least one ADAS feature. But not all high-tech features are safety-critical. And CR’s Fisher says that consumers can try to mitigate future repair costs by being more selective about options when buying a new car.

“There’s equipment that will save you from getting into a collision,” he says. “But other items, like LED lights and low-profile tires that cost a lot to repair but don’t do much for safety, could be avoided.”

Collisions Get Complicated

ADAS repairs can be placed broadly into three categories: body, glass, and maintenance.

Windshield chips and cracks can be repaired with resin to prevent spider-webbing. But resin shouldn’t be used in areas that house cameras. To work optimally, ADAS requires greater glass clarity for the cameras. Today’s windshields also might contain wiper de-icers and rain sensors, potentially adding to the repair cost. As with other ADAS-related collision repairs, windshield replacement now involves sensor recalibration.

According to the Auto Care Association, a trade group, shops report that the most common repairs are for bumpers, fenders, and doors. Bumpers—which usually consist of a hard frame with a plastic cover—can house a host of sensors that can be damaged or misaligned in a low-speed collision.

In the past, minor bumper damage could be repaired by filling scratches and gouges, then spot-painting. But body-filler compound and fresh paint could impair vehicle sensors, so some bumper repairs now require the more costly option of replacing the cover.

“Years ago, there might be a little nick on it that you would never file a claim for,” says Schneider, the insurance company adviser. “Now, that same nick could require recalibration of a camera or sensor.”

Damage to headlight and taillight assemblies and side mirrors can be similarly expensive. Side mirrors often contain cameras and other electronic parts, such as flashing warning lights.

“Ten years ago, our average repair ticket was about $1,600,” said Tim Cook, owner of “A” Auto Body Shop in the Richmond, Va., area, which is qualified to work on ADAS-equipped cars. “Now, it’s over $4,000. We’re seeing more and more cars declared total losses because of the cost of repairing them.”

Then there are other expensive parts now more common on new vehicles, including large-diameter wheels with low-profile tires that can be more easily damaged by potholes. LED headlights and taillights are becoming more common on cars as consumer demand rises, and repairing them can run into the multiple thousands of dollars for some luxury SUVs.

Some vehicles also require sensor calibrations as a part of wheel alignments so that adaptive cruise control sensors can work properly.

We asked several automakers about the extra costs related to collision damage in ADAS-equipped vehicles. They all stressed the importance of increasing safety via new technology.

Dominick Infante, director of communications for Subaru of America, said it was difficult to estimate how much its EyeSight features add to the cost of otherwise typical collision work, given the multiple variables involved in each crash, including the severity and location of the collision, as well as the specific ADAS features involved. He stressed that Subaru’s goal was to reduce crashes. Along that line, he said, “Consumers should expect and demand any repair facility working on their Subaru to have all necessary ADAS calibrations completed before picking up the vehicle.”

“Any deviation from original equipment Subaru Parts, and the system may not operate as intended,” he added.

David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, who was a senior official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says automakers should work harder to make safety sensors more durable in crashes and less expensive to repair. “Now that these critical safety systems have gone mainstream,” he says, “automakers have an extra responsibility to make sure consumers can afford to both buy and repair them— especially when they’re in relatively minor crashes.”

Repair Shops in Transition

Finding the right collision repair shop is key for consumers because there are serious safety implications if a sensor isn’t recalibrated correctly.

Safelite AutoGlass did testing using AEB sensors that were intentionally misaligned and found that vehicles collided with targets they were supposed to avoid.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to see that such recalibration is done, and done properly,” says Passmore, the assistant vice president at the APCIA.

CR experts stress the importance of following manufacturer guidelines with ADAS repairs. But they say some shops aren’t able to meet this standard yet.

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, an organization that certifies technicians, told CR it’s developing a credential for repair technicians working on ADAS features so that they’ll be competent at diagnosing, repairing, and calibrating equipment. But the first credentialed tests won’t be ready until 2021, the group said.

The cost of ADAS repair and maintenance could decline over time as more vehicles have them as standard equipment and as more repair shops have the necessary skills and equipment, says Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing.

But he and other auto safety experts say it would be a mistake for consumers to avoid these critical features because of concerns about repair costs. “The real savings will come from the crashes you didn’t have in the first place,” he says.

How Does Advanced Safety Tech Affect Car Repairs?

Front Bumper
Basic bumper repair: $700 to $1,800
Sensor and camera replacement(s): +$500 to $1,900
Recalibration: +$250 to $600

Front bumpers can hold sensors and cameras that help make AEB and other ADAS features work. Experts recommend recalibrating sensors and cameras after minor collisions, even if the ADAS equipment doesn’t need to be replaced. Recalibration costs vary by model and the features involved. Vehicles with AEB and FCW had 50 percent fewer rear-end collisions, according to a study from the IIHS.

Headlights and Taillights
Halogen assemblies: $200 to $500
LED assemblies: $750 to $1,500
Recalibration: +$100 to $250

LED headlights and taillights are available on more mass-market cars these days, adding expense when they’re damaged and need to be replaced. LED headlights provide a brighter and wider beam pattern, but they don’t necessarily help you see farther down the road, CR’s tests have found. “LED headlamp assemblies vary wildly in cost,” says Jill Trotta, vice president of RepairPal’s automotive group. “Some European assemblies can cost as much as $3,000 to $5,000.” Only headlight assemblies (not taillights) need to be recalibrated.

Windshield Replacement
Regular windshield: $300 to $500
ADAS-capable windshield: $700 to $1,500
Sensor and camera replacement(s): +$800 to $1,900
Recalibration: +$250

Cameras and radar sensors that help AEB and LDW work are often mounted inside the windshield. Depending on the type of damage, windshield repair or replacement can involve sensor and camera replacement and/or recalibration. Vehicles with LDW had 21 percent fewer single-vehicle, sideswipe, and head-on crashes with injuries, according to the IIHS-HLDI study.*

Rear Bumper
Basic bumper repair: $700 to $1,800
Sensor and camera replacement(s): +$1,000 to $2,500
Recalibration: +$250 and up

Cameras and sensors for rear AEB, cross traffic assist, and parking assist live behind the rear bumper and can be damaged in a collision. Vehicles with rear AEB (when combined with rearview cameras and parking sensors) had 78 percent fewer backup crashes, according to the IIHS-HLDI study.* “Any basic body technician can do a bumper repair,” Trotta says. “Now, there’s so much tech built into the bumper it takes advanced technicians and calibration to fix it.”

Side Mirror Replacement
Standard mirrors: $300 to $500
Mirrors with ADAS: $1,000 to $2,500
Recalibration: +$250 and up

Side mirrors can house BSW indicator lights, but they can be more complex, with camera and video display capabilities. Vehicles with blind spot detection systems had 23 percent fewer lane-change crashes with injuries, according to the IIHS-HLDI study.* 

Figures are based on average repair costs for typical cars that consumers might own, plus some higher-end outliers, according to RepairPal, an independent group that tracks repair costs. The figures don’t reflect repair costs for some ultra-high-end vehicles or for more serious crashes requiring more extensive body work. The pricing is for car, SUV, and light-duty-truck repair costs, including parts and labor. RepairPal is a CR partner.

*Source: IIHS-HLDI’s “Real-world benefits of crash avoidance technologies,” June 2019.

5 Questions to Ask

If you’re in the market for a car with ADAS, be sure to spend your money on features that can offer real safety benefits. And if you need a repair, it might not be obvious which shops are qualified to fix these complex systems. Here are some key questions to consider.

Should you be wary of buying a luxury vehicle just off-lease?
Yes. Older model-year luxury vehicles had ADAS features first and might be snapped up off-lease by cost-conscious luxury seekers. But the vehicles could be more than a few years out of warranty, and you could be looking at expensive repairs for ADAS-related equipment that breaks down and for other repairs in general.

Should you get an extended warranty to cover high-tech safety gear?
Insurers and other companies offer extended bumper-to-bumper warranties that would pay for the breakdown of ADAS equipment and other items in your car, beyond the regular warranty period. In the event of a crash, damaged ADAS equipment would be covered as part of regular collision insurance, minus any deductible. Collision coverage is generally required when leasing or if you’re still paying off a vehicle loan. If you own the vehicle outright and opt out of collision coverage, you could be stuck with expensive collision repair bills.

How can you tell whether a shop has the equipment to repair these systems?
Ask your dealership if it can handle the repair or if it can recommend a qualified repair shop. Not all dealerships have the tools necessary to recalibrate ADAS sensors and cameras, but a factory-backed service department can usually point you in the right direction. You also can look online for manufacturer-recommended collision repair shops. Some manufacturer websites have a list of certified collision centers, although you might have to dig around for it. If you go with an independent repair shop, research online reviews and ask the shop which certifications it has and whether it can make the necessary repairs and calibrations.

How do the benefits of advanced driver assistance systems compare with the repair costs?
If you’re shopping for a car, we strongly recommend a vehicle with AEB with pedestrian detection, FCW, and BSW. These systems have been shown to substantially reduce rear-end crashes. CR gives extra points if AEB and FCW come standard on all trims of a tested model. Seriously consider whether you should pay extra for high-tech convenience features, such as LED headlights, that might add to repair costs but not necessarily improve safety.

Should you ask for factory parts?
If your car is under warranty, you should ask for manufacturer parts because some manufacturers could void your warranty if certain aftermarket parts are used. If your car is out of warranty, aftermarket or used parts can save you money and should provide the same level of safety. CR believes that to keep repairs more affordable, car manufacturers and their associated dealers shouldn’t have a monopoly on parts or repair services.

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Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the March 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.