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Automobile Repair 2015: Damage Control

Weighing In on the Shift to Aluminum

As automakers crank up the use of aluminum and carbon fiber to bring down vehicle weight, an increase in costs to repair these vehicles after an accident isn’t a forgone conclusion.

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If you drove your aluminum-body 2015 Ford F-150 into the body shop at Apple Ford after an accident, you’d pay $75 per hour to repair the vehicle. That might not seem like a surprising rate until you consider that if you had the 2014 steel version of that pickup, you’d pay the dealership just $44 per hour, which is more in line with the national-average body-shop labor rate of about $47.

“There’s an investment in training and equipping people to do the repair process right, so there’s a premium in the marketplace right now for repairing that [aluminum] panel versus a steel panel,” says Chip Doetsch, who is the president of the dealership.

Research by Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) in 2014—prior to the F-150 launch—found that aluminum vehicles have up to 20 percent higher collision-repair costs than do their steel counterparts.

Nevertheless, Ford Motor says the jury is out on whether its pickup will turn out to be more expensive to repair. Most shops tell Consumers Digest that repairing aluminum vehicles doesn’t require more time, but it involves different equipment and techniques. The investment in tools and training triggers higher labor rates, although we found that not all shops are bumping up their labor rates equally.

“If we look at the claims data sent through so far to date, we’re not seeing exorbitant rates charged,” says Susanna Gotsch of CCC Information Services, which tracks data for insurance companies and which provided the national body-shop labor-rate averages. She adds that as the cost of aluminum and carbon fiber decreases as a result of increased demand, so, too, should prices on replacement parts. So, more reason than ever before exists to shop for repair estimates and to choose a shop that’s equipped and trained properly to repair these materials.

NO SACRIFICE. Automakers aren’t shifting to lightweight materials to cut costs; in fact, the alternative materials are universally more expensive. Aluminum is 40 percent lighter but 30 percent more expensive than steel, according to McKinsey, which is a consulting company. Carbon-fiber parts, meanwhile, can be half of the weight of their steel counterparts but nearly six times the cost. Federal fuel-mileage requirements are slated to increase to 34.1 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025, which is up from the 2014 actual fleet average of 31.5 mpg. Reducing the weight of vehicles is part of automakers’ push to meet this mandate.

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The new F-150, for example, is roughly 700 pounds lighter than its predecessor, and the switch to aluminum body parts accounts for 57 percent of that weight loss, according to Doug Richman of Kaiser Aluminum. The reduced weight helps to improve fuel economy by 2–3 mpg over the previous F-150, depending on the version of the pickup.

The use of aluminum in vehicles is 28 percent higher in 2015 than it was in 2012, according to transportation-research company Ducker Worldwide. Ducker forecasts that by 2025, 75 percent of all new pickups will have aluminum hoods, doors and other body parts.

The 2014 HLDI study compared claim costs over multiple years for “aluminum-intensive” vehicles, such as the Audi A8, against those for comparable vehicles that include some aluminum but also have a steel chassis, such as the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. HLDI concluded that collision-repair costs were 19 percent higher for vehicles in which almost all of the body and chassis were constructed of aluminum.

Automakers say this isn’t because aluminum damages more easily, however. Ford makes a point of referring to the material that’s used in its 2015 F-150 as “high-strength, military-grade aluminum alloy” in an obvious attempt to assuage concerns that its body panels might have the same strength or durability as that of a soda can.

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