The Epicenter of Self-Driving Car Repairs
Carolyn Coquillette recognizes that a repair shop can't know everything about every repair because there are always new systems emerging, but she does know that it's a repair shop's job to know when to draw its limits and bring in outside expertise.
Coquillette is owner of Luscious Garage, a speciality repair shop in San Francisco, Calif., repairing hybrid vehicles. She's no stranger to thinking ahead when it comes to repairing vehicle technology. In fact, she opened her repair shop in 2007. At the time, she wasn't sure if hybrid vehicles were going to be "a flash in the pan" or if they were going to dwindle.
"We have our reputation and kind of our charter is really about new technology," she says. "So, we've been watching the changes in autonomous and connected cars very closely and watching where we want to go next."
Luscious Garage is definitely one of the earlier repair shops to specialize in repairing advanced technology but it isn't the sole repair shop in the game today.
California is known for its large cities like Los Angeles, star-born celebrities, mild weather and Coachella. Out of the 50 states of the United States, it stands as its own center for vehicle trends and start-up companies. After all, it's the home of Silicon Valley—an industrial region around the southern shores of the San Francisco Bay area.
How did California get there?
Its name, silicon, is derived from the base materials of the semiconductors employed in computer circuits and is based off of the dense population of computer and electronics companies that sprang up in the area in the mid 20th century.
While rich in the history of Fortune 100 companies, California has become the hub of self-driving vehicle technology. Waymo was one of the first companies to receive the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ okay to to test driverless cars without a backup driver.
Waymo, formerly the Google self-driving car project and now an autonomous driving technology development company, is not the only self-driving car company in the state.
As of February 2020, the California DMV issued self-driving car permits to companies including Pony.AI, Zoox, Ridecell Inc, Toyota Research Institute, Qualcomm Technologies, Voyage, Apple and more.
About 29 states have enacted legislation regarding self-driving cars, with California being one of the states with the most companies testing there.
California’s pioneer into self-driving car companies has created a sort of trickle-effect of auto repair industry businesses responding with more specialized repairs and repairs geared towards advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS)- features that are becoming more prevalent in 2019 and newer model cars to help the car operate some functions without the drivers assistance.
Coquillette has not stopped pushing forward with learning about new vehicle technology repairs and in 2018, she joined the Automotive Service Councils of California (ASCCA)'s Connected Car Committee to stay in tune.
She says its time for shops to determine if there is enough action in this "arena" for them to pursue the course.
The Growing Market in 2018
Mark Kipfer, co-owner and technician of Auto Glass Express in Berkeley, Calif., is one of a few auto glass repair shops in the area to witness a shift in the industry around 2018.
2018 was the year that Kipfer and other owners saw more cars entering their shops that needed calibrations performed. At the time, Kipfer was seeing mostly Subaru vehicles entering the facility because they needed repairs done on the lane departure warning system and the camera integrated behind the windshield.
Kipfer realized he was sending too many vehicles at the time to dealerships to sublet that calibrations work. So, he invested in ADAS calibration equipment shortly after that.
“We wanted to become that one-stop shop,” Kipfer says. “We were tired of saying no we don’t do ADAS calibrations.”
Jacques Navant, technical director for Don’s Mobile Glass and The Calibration Station in the Modesto area of California, had a similar experience in 2018. In 2016, the Auto Glass Safety Council formed an ADAS committee for the auto glass industry and Navant quickly joined as a founding member and became its chairman in 2018.
Navant at the time was noticing an increase in vehicles with ADAS features as well, which he attributes to the huge car culture surrounding California and the fact that these autonomous vehicles might be easier to drive in the state’s nice, year-round weather.
That year, Navant and his team founded The Calibration Station, which services about 15 body shops throughout the Central Valley of California. While the team was initially performing ADAS calibrations out of Don’s Mobile Glass locations, they quickly experienced an increase in requests for repair and decided to dedicate a separate shop to the repairs.
Jason Simms, owner of Argonaut Garage in Berkeley, Calif., has been focusing on another aspect of advanced vehicle technology repairs: the electric car. He ventured into the electric and hybrid vehicle repair market about five to six years ago. Simms had been seeing a handful of electric cars pulling into the shop’s gas station area and he realized that when it came to actually touching the car, he didn’t know a lot about repairing those types of vehicles.
Yet, the market around him was shifting and his competitors had started to venture into electric vehicle repairs.
Today, Simms performs most of the electric car repairs. He says that a repair shop really only needs a good diagnostic technician who can learn and read about the EVs in order to repair them. Otherwise, he emphasizes that there isn’t a lot of training out in the repair industry, currently, for electric vehicle repairs.
The Closer Look at Numbers
Kipfer invested about $20,000 for his initial calibrations system start-up. The system comes with frame packages that allow the shop to essentially build a virtual box around most vehicle types. The box will be surrounding the car and will be square so that the camera in the car is looking at the frame and reporting measurements. Usually there are lasers attached to the rear wheel so it can be aimed at the target frame and square with the vehicle.
Kipfer and his team put up a false wall made up of an off-white curtain so that no other objects visually confuse the camera during the process. All-in-all, he uses a 30-foot bay that is approximately 15 feet wide to perform the calibration.
Navant remarks that most shops that want to dedicate one bay for calibrations can expect to invest about $18,000 to get started. For The Calibration Station shops, which consist of two locations, he invested about $150,000 in order to equip the facilities with the proper tools, equipment, software and purpose-built shop environments.
He recommends setting aside a bay that is about 50 by 30 feet or bigger. Navant says a bigger bay is better because larger American trucks like the Ford F-350, require two, large floor targets. The booths require a controlled light source as well.
Last year, the shop performed over 1,500 calibrations on vehicles.
Simms has his repair shop equipped with about 4 factory scan tools to perform the proper calibrations. He says his initial investment was around $1,500 and then around an additional $700 a year for updates on the scan tools and subscription fees.
Every month, he repairs about two electric vehicles. While it might not seem like the investment has paid off. Simms has doubled his sales from 2018. That year, his monthly average sales were about $62,000 and now, they average about $137,000.
The Repair Shop Takeaway
These three examples of auto glass repair shops and repair shops in the California area have invested in ADAS calibrations for two reasons: customer safety and staying ahead of the competition.
Sure, it might seem like there’s a smattering of semi-autonomous vehicles or cars with some ADAS features entering repair shops today. But, the reality is, is that unless repair shops choose to invest in the equipment early, the return on investment might be even further along in the future. And, the shop runs the risk of losing those repairs to competition.
“We want to make sure the customer is safe when they’re driving a car and that we’re not ignoring these new technologies,” Kipfer says.
Navant says it’s about educating the customer that the whole automotive industry is in it together. He’s definitely had customers call with heavy concerns over not knowing how their new ADAS features work, or whether they are working correctly.
“With ADAS features, there’s no room for error,” Navant says. “It’s not like a moving cog where you can visually see the problem, only by closely following OE and tool manufacturer specifications can you achieve a safe and accurate calibration.”