This past month, Precision received a visit from Boris Chong of Audi of America, when he travelled from Audi’s offices in Washington state to Precision’s Bend facility.  He brought with him a plaque certifying the Bend facility’s newly minted status as an Audi Certified Collision Repair Facility. Bend joins Precision of Beaverton as an Audi-certified collision repair facility, making them the only two of their kind in the state of Oregon. Achieving the status of an Audi-certified collision repair facility is a hard-won accomplishment. Audi’s collision certification program is known as one of the most stringent in the industry. The Bend store’s certification is the result of a 2-year effort, much dedication on the part of our team, and a significant capital expenditure in specialized equipment, tooling, and training.

If you’ve been in a collision, you may be wondering whether you should choose a factory-certified collision repair facility, especially if such a facility is not among your insurance company’s  preferred collision repair providers.  The answer lies in understanding how rapidly today’s automotive industry is changing, as well as what is driving that change: the recent passage of new federal fuel economy regulations.

How Federal Fuel Economy Regulations Impact the Collision Repair Industry

Federal fuel economy regulation is not new. In fact, the federal government first began mandating fuel economy standards, known as CAFE, in 1975, the same year Precision opened our flagship collision repair location in Beaverton. As a result, cars evolved to become leaner and cleaner through the late 70’s and early 80’s.  New designs featured aerodynamically improved bodies on smaller wheelbases.  Next, engines were improved for greater fuel efficiency, with most passenger cars featuring some form of computerized engine control by 1985. Then in the late 90s and early 2000s, engine efficiency was further enhanced and refined with better fuel injection systems, compression ratios, and enhanced valve actuation & timing.   (Burke et al, 2004)

But today, auto manufacturers are racing to adapt to the biggest fuel economy challenge to date. In late 2012, the Obama administration passed new rules requiring a fleet average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 – nearly double the current required average mpg .  (Vlasic, 2012) In order to meet this new requirement without sacrificing size or performance, manufacturers are looking to basic physics for a solution: 1) Reduce the size of engines; and 2) Make vehicle bodies and frames much, much lighter, through the use of “exotic” metal alloys, especially aluminum alloys.

The End of Heavy  Metal?

German automaker Audi has been utilizing aluminum alloys in its manufacturing processes since the 90s. Mark Allen is the Collision Programs & Workshop Equipment Specialist for Audi.  According to Allen, while Audi saw & recognized the potential of applying the  strong yet lightweight aluminum alloys used in the aerospace industries in vehicle manufacturing, the cost of manufacturing and repairing aluminum vehicles has prohibited other larger manufacturers from following suit. Audi’s  relatively small production levels ,  technology-focused culture, and luxury price point enabled them to be leaders in the fabrication of automobiles using aluminum alloys, creating vehicles that are lightweight & fuel efficient without sacrificing cabin space or power performance.  And while luxury brands like Jaguar, Mercedes, and Cadillac have already begun incorporating aluminum body components in existing models, mass market auto manufacturers will likely now follow suit in order to meet CAFE standards.  Even Ford  is contemplating a largely aluminum bodied F-150 pickup for 2014.

Impact on Industry & Consumers

For consumers, aluminum alloys mean better fuel efficiency without sacrificing size or performance. And aluminum alloys are among the safest for use in automotive applications: to quote DriveAluminum.org, “The superior energy absorption properties of high-strength aluminum alloys, matched with intelligent vehicle design, make aluminum components and aluminum intensive vehicles among the very safest on the road.”

But in the event of a collision, the choice of a repair shop is crucial if you drive a vehicle whose body or frame is made from aluminum alloys.  For now, at least, such vehicles are still just a small minority. And it’s important to understand that aluminum alloy bodies & frames react differently in a collision than their more common steel counterparts. Unlike steel, aluminum has no “memory” of its original shape, and in a collision, it may harden. In order to continue to perform safely, aluminum parts must be repaired safely.

Not only does aluminum respond differently in a collision: the tools & processes required for aluminum repairs are also different from those used in repairing regular steel auto body components. Facilities qualified to perform aluminum repair must have wholly separate tooling reserved for use only on aluminum parts, to avoid the galvanic corrosion that occurs when aluminum comes into contact with other metals.  The equipment needed to repair aluminum alloys, such as MIG welders and special riveting tools, is expensive to acquire. And the operation of such tools requires advanced skills and special training that many mainstream shops may not be able to access.

What’s the Bottom Line?

At Precision, we prioritize safety and quality. A good body repair is more than just paint deep:  as veterans of the collision repair industry, we have to think about the possibility of a second collision, even  though we hope it won’t occur. Our repairs have to be structurally sound to protect drivers & passengers in the event of another collision.  And in order to make structurally sound repairs, shops need to be properly equipped and trained. The bottom line is that most shops aren’t yet properly equipped & trained to deal with aluminum repairs.

As aluminum becomes more commonly used in the automotive industry, regulations governing the proper repair of aluminum are likely. But for now, auto manufacturers like Audi are looking out for their customers by providing their own training programs to shops like ours. In order to perform on the cutting edge after a collision, aluminum vehicles must be repaired at a shop with cutting edge tools & up-to-the minute training.

References:

  • The Aluminum Association. “Aluminum Advantages.” DriveAluminum.org. 2013.
  • Burke, Andy; Abeles, Ethan; Chen, Belinda. “The Response of the Auto Industry and Consumers to Changes in the Exhaust Emission and Fuel Economy Standards (1975-2003): A Historical Review of Changes in Technology, Prices and Sales of Various Classes of Vehicles.” June 2004.
  • Vlasic , Bill. “U.S. Sets Higher Fuel Efficiency Standards.” The New York Times. August 28, 2012.

Author Ron Reichen is the Chairman of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS), and is the founder of Precision Body & Paint.