Cover Story: A Glimpse into the Future

A Glimpse into the Future

What our business might look like in 2045 is anyone’s guess. And guess we did, starting with what Mrs. Smith’s ride might look like.

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What a fun assignment! Predict the collision repair business down the road 30 years, ask some industry experts what they think it might look like and write up your thoughts. What I found on the way were knowledgeable folks who were pretty consistent in their predictions about our industry’s immediate future: more aluminum, lower VOCs, more consolidation. But what our business might look like in 2045 is anyone’s guess. And guess we did, starting with what Mrs. Smith’s ride might look like.

Mrs. Smith’s Vehicle

We started with the premise that we wouldn’t all be traveling in the Jetsons’ flying car in 2045. In 1985, 30 years ago, cars had rubber tires, hinged doors and gasoline engines. Something similar conveys us today, and we predict this will likely endure for the next three decades.

However, every single person I spoke with predicted that our future vehicles will have much more “telematics,” the fast-evolving technology interfaces that entertain us, direct our routes, soften our shocks and avoid collisions. We predict your future auto will communicate instantly and consecutively with the many cameras, sensors, radars and lasers built in on-board and with multiple satellites, other vehicles, road signs, traffic cameras and local weather reports externally.

My first car phone had a handset and base the size of a shoebox bolted to the transmission hump that connected through shortwave radio onto landlines to complete the calls. In 2015, both my car and my phone are much smarter than I am. How much faster will the automotive electronic technology accelerate through the next 30 years? Yipe!

Unfortunately, employing this much connectivity in our future mobile transport provides all sorts of opportunities to breach security and hack not only your credit cards but your gas pedal as well. Car companies are hiring techies and tech companies are hiring car folks right now to manage the incredible assistance that connected vehicles can bring their drivers and passengers and minimize the risk of unwanted others electronically sneaking on board. Cybersecurity takes on new meaning when your automobile must communicate with so many interfaces and location changes.

Drivers’ Aids

Making the driving trip easier, safer and more enjoyable has led to a current 2015 suite of drivers’ aids that would have seemed unlikely as recently as 1985.

The first automatic cruise control came about in the late 1950s, and the first automatic braking systems (ABS) were in the late 70s. Currently, on-board computers, in one form or another, can manage not only the brakes but also the throttle; traction assignments; suspension settings; stability control; lane departure; blind spot warning; routes to beat traffic and weather; and even the noise from the exhaust pipes.

Eleven auto manufacturers will offer auto-stop options in 2016, a feature that will apply 100 percent brakes (stops RIGHT NOW) before you roll into the car in front of you. The new BMW 7 Series uses mapping technology to change the transmission shift points depending on terrain. It’s hard to imagine what information connections the 2045 fleet will boast.

Imagine That

In another 30 years, my experts predict the new vehicles, both human-driven and computer-driven, will have many external and internal cameras, multiple sensors around the car, radar (short, medium and long ranges) and LIDAR (which is laser-based radar using light waves, not radio waves), all running full speed to broadcast your location to other vehicles and gather data from road signs, satellites and surrounding cars – all to keep you moving wthe quickest, safest way to your destination.

One important question arises when all the panels of your car have circuitry, sensors, receivers, cameras and antennas baked into the part: Will the body shop of 2045 be able to recalibrate those many sensors and switches triggered in even a small collision? Can that part be repaired safely in any fashion, or must it be replaced? Will all car manufacturers patent each sensor-laden crash part so that no other vendor can offer one? The automotive aftermarket will certainly lobby to prevent OEM monopolies in 2045 just as they have since 1905. No matter who will make the tech-laden replacement parts, tomorrow’s auto body technician will be part metalsmith and part computer nerd, working in a much cleaner shop environment, we predict.

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In that same vein, who will own the V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) data that your car will exchange with others, such as the insurance companies. The USB plug-in device that Flo dared you to try is a voluntary form of user-based insurance; you only pay for the risk you expose the carrier to. If you drive smoothly, don’t floor the gas or the brakes and don’t speed, the car reports that and the insurer’s risk is lower and your premium is too.

Currently, insurers are asking car manufacturers to share data on 2015 driving habits with them. If it proves to be a reliable predictor of collisions, the question becomes whose vehicle won’t have the required technology links to report your own safe driving habits to your insurance company and keep your 2045 insurance rates low?

The Stats

Some of my interviewees were sure that battery technology breakthroughs were assured by 2045 and that all new cars would be electric and powered by quickly recharged nickel-unobtanium mini battery packs. Other folks were less confident in electric motors as the 2045 default. Until Volkswagen just set back the entire diesel engine industry a couple of decades, I was a big fan of three-cylinder turbo diesels as a likely future power plant. Remember that 2045 is 20 years past the latest CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirement of 54.5 miles per gallon. By 2045, the big torque and cheaper energy costs of little diesels may recover from VW’s suicide bullet. I’m predicting Mrs. Smith’s new vehicle will have a diversity of power plants: a small internal combustion device, gas or diesel, and some battery-driven electric motors for assistance, using a version of today’s auto stop/start function that shuts off all motors in the car whenever it’s stopped. In total, it will amount to 200 horsepower.

Bodies

Until we invent a perpetual motion machine, lighter weight bodies will always be a huge part of getting better gas mileage. From mild steel to high-strength steel to high-strength low-alloy steel to boron-infused steel, it doesn’t look like we’re near the end of the metallurgy that can be employed in building better, stronger and lighter steel crash panels. So by 2045, in addition to the aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber, carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), injection-molded and recycled parts in a new car, I think that some large part will still be played by advanced high-strength steel. At the end of the day, vehicle design is first about safety and second about style. The three-box unicoupe or some integrated monocoque chassis built from multiple lightweight components will be designed and built to keep Mrs. Smith and her passengers alive and well in the most severe collisions – those that all the on-board drivers’ aids can’t avoid anyway.

The Paint

I had lots of far-ranging discussions about what sort of colorful finish Mrs. Smith’s 2045 ride would likely employ. Environmental concerns will certainly have magnified many times by then. Will VOC regulations have gotten so severe that sprayable coatings of any kind will be outlawed? What if we copy John DeLorean and leave the stainless steel alone with no coating? What if we employ colorful plastic wraps that not only don’t pollute the air but are so smooth and glossy that they look sprayed on? Will our fear of any paint pollutants at all see Mrs. Smith’s car with color-impregnated, injection-molded parts instead of topcoats?

The new Sea-Doos look pretty cool with their molded-in matte colors. Is Mrs. Smith’s paint finish going to be solar-charged and change color with sunlight? I predict that the coolest new car finish Mrs. Smith will be able to order in 2045 will be electro-chromatic. That means that by passing an electrical current through the paint, it will change color. Feel like a blue car today? Just turn the dial to blue when you start the car. Something similar is possible right now with color shifting conductive coatings, but by 2045 we should be able to create a color from anywhere on the color wheel, right? Will we possibly have two rheostats for a two-tone option for the big kids’ cars? I say yes.

Self-Driving Bots

Any talk of the collision industry’s future must include the strides Google has made with their self-driving devices. They have a goal of selling them to you by 2030. They have more than 1.2 million miles with no accidents caused by the vehicles. There have been a couple rear-enders because, like the Curtis E. Driver it’s programmed to be (slow down and stop if you don’t understand), their cars wait 1.5 seconds to take off when the light turns green – a New York minute for sure! Self-driving cars seemed a surer thing in 2045 to my interviewees who lived in major urban areas than to those of us out where the open roads are.

There are lots of problems to address when a human isn’t in control of the vehicle: lighting conditions vary drastically every day; video cameras aren’t good at exact distances; radar is better at metal objects than animals, and predicting what that deer on the shoulder will do next is really tough for both man and computer; forward collision warning radar can see the accident up five cars if all the cars are connected, but if it brakes really hard and the car behind it lacks the same technology, does the system know it will likely get rear-ended?

One source says the problem is getting a computer program smart enough to compare what it sees through all the cameras and sensors and what it predicts the environment (rain, pedestrians, debris) will do next. For all its faults, your brain does a great job of making multiple driving decisions at once – unless you’re hampered by alcohol, fatigue, boredom or distraction, which the robot vehicle is not. Will there be accidents if all cars drive themselves? Of course; we’ll just substitute programmer error for driver error on the reporting form.

Training

Those future body shops will be faced with many more sophisticated joining techniques to invisibly weld very different substrates back together attractively and safely, my sources predict. Special equipment ranging from welders to adhesive applicators to exotic curing lights (just like today) will be required to repair Mrs. Smith’s 2045 auto. Skilled technicians will be required to operate this special equipment successfully. The consolidation within our industry will certainly continue, in part because larger operations can more easily afford the expensive equipment and the necessary training to excel.

Technology overload, data explosion, condition red! Currently, 90 percent of the collision repair workforce is not properly trained in aluminum welding. Like any training, you don’t know what you don’t know. We’re currently an industry with relatively little bureaucratic regulation about our operations. By 2045, I predict that enough TV lawyers will have sued enough insurance companies, body shops and consumers that proof-of-repair technician training will be mandatory. Certainly, the insurance industry right now is more interested than ever in doing business with certifiably competent repair people. Start now, folks! Enroll in education. Faster, better and safer rule the day. Learn how.

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Those future techs will also need to manage and restore the data housed in Mrs. Smith’s vehicle. And not just her radio station presets but the latest factory programming for the engine control modules, restored and updated after collision repair, the new GPS mapping updates, and all of Mr. or Mrs. Smith’s contact information and vehicle preferences.

While there are plenty of opportunities today for drivers to become distracted by their dashboards’ infotainment systems, imagine how inviting the interfaces on a vehicle 30 years from now will be. Full color, gesture sensitive, 3-D holographic email on your GPU (graphics processing unit), plus all the regular junk already on your current cellphone now on the big screen. It will all be tempting tomorrow’s drivers to look away from the road even more often.

Fuel Economy Regulation

With a required 54.5 miles per gallon set in stone for 2025, imagine what the government environmentalists will mandate for Corporate Average Fuel Economy by 2045 – 70 or 80 mpg seems plausible. In either case, your personal car won’t be achieving those results.

I previously understood that CAFE calculations were created using some complicated math rather than driving the cars around a track. In researching this story, I now understand just how complicated it is. My favorite definition: “uses the harmonic mean, the reciprocal of the average of the reciprocal values.” Well, duh!

In English, the engine is run on a test bench not installed in an auto. Based on the vehicle’s “footprint,” the bench offers resistance loads to simulate the weight. It’s an engineering problem of the first magnitude for everyone. The car manufacturers must balance mandated fuel economy with collision safety, pollution contribution and repairability. The current penalty for missing CAFE is $5.50 for every 0.1 mpg they miss, times that auto manufacturer’s entire annual production run. Ouch! With the current ratio of CAFE math mpg to EPA window sticker mpg, you’ll enjoy a 36- to 40-mpg ride in 2025 and a 50- to 60-plus mpg real-world average in 2045.

Insurers

With Mrs. Smith’s current ride sideways in a ditch, her car calls her, checks her health, notifies the EMS, calls a tow truck and arranges a rental car, all available right now in 2015. By 2045, that same incident might report the first notice of loss (FNOL) to her insurance carrier and her agent, notify the nearest DRP partner body shop, create a self-diagnosed estimate and order the parts from a selected vendor – all while keeping Mrs. Smith in the loop the whole time.

Neither the auto manufacturer nor the insurance company can let cars get too complex or expensive to repair collision damage. If the car manufacturer patents their sensor-laden parts and charges inordinately for a new one, the insurance industry will lead the court fights to keep repair costs reasonable.

Insurance companies will continue to pay 90 percent of all collision repairs, I expect, and they’ll also get much better and much faster about measuring every single part of the repair, beginning with their insureds’ satisfaction ratings and ending many numbers later at “net cost per flag hour for sandpaper on Wednesdays” or some such figure.

The vehicle of the future will have many redundant electronic systems which will all need precision installation and calibration during collision repair. Insurance contracts will still offer repair to “pre-accident condition,” and I’m confident that our industry will rise to the occasion as we always have. Increased complexity will drive out the less qualified shops pretty quickly.

Body Shops

Most folks predict the total collision repair market will stay static in size but there will be fewer collisions at a higher average cost. Decreased frequency, increased severity, but plenty of opportunity for well-trained shops to prosper in our distant future. Some work may have to be completed in a computer-style clean room. As you know, electronics and shop dust don’t mix well.

The 2045 auto’s topcoat, whether waterborne paint, colorful plastic film, anodized aluminum or hue-injected steel, will no doubt be refinished invisibly with compliant equipment and by talented painters. Trained techs and the correct equipment make for safe, fast and profitable repairs, both today and 30 years from today.

Summary

Will there be some autonomous “vehbots” on the road in 2045? I’m positive there will be.

In high-density urban areas with low speed limits and controlled environments such as airports and college campuses, they’ll work great and – no doubt – sooner than we think. I believe it will take much longer before autonomous-only lanes on freeways become the norm. Although adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings are here right now, it takes about 30 years for a particular auto option to make its way onto the majority of the fleet on the road (air conditioning, automatic transmissions, ABS). Once most people have it, we can build infrastructure to utilize it.

As young people move rapidly to big cities, they won’t need a car or certainly a second car to work or play. Younger people in general are less and less interested in a career in auto repair of any stripe. Several of my interviewees thought we would soon fall into two distinct vehicle groups: the “urban center” folks vs. the “we love driving” camp. Urban center folks will take the solar-powered bus and connect with the local auto-bot Level 5 self-driving shuttle to their doorstep. They’ll rent a car when they need one (and can find someplace to park it). Congestion and everyday traffic in our big cities is awful right now. I’m in for any solution that keeps those 16-lane gridlocks at bay. Most long-distance suburban commuters would be happy to have R2D2 take the wheel and make the crawl to and from work every day, we predict.

I’m firmly in the “we love driving” camp. I’m pleased with all the electronic driver’s aids I currently enjoy in my car and look forward to even smarter cars, which make me a better driver. But I want to be at the wheel, shift the gears and nail the throttle myself. One of the things that makes America so unique is our ability to wake up, walk out, get in the car and drive to Grandma’s, no matter if it’s three miles or 3,000. Electric motor-driven “vehbots” won’t be my choice to get there. Most of the country isn’t faced with the traffic and pollution concerns big cities are, and I think will want some “help” from their future 2045 car while not simply becoming its cargo.

Innovation for every single auto component is global. You can’t turn it back; new technology awaits every day on suspension, fuel delivery, serviceability and a thousand other auto elements, and there are almost 11,000 days until 2045. Whether cars are human piloted or robot driven, I predict we’ll still mix it up out on the 2045 roadways, locally stormy weather events will intrude, deer will get no smarter and we’ll all need some future collision repairs.

Even if that car is made from some special CFRP-wheatgrass mixture and painted with copper anodized microfilm and connected to the White House red phone by laser beams, I know the car Mrs. Smith picks up in 2045 will be capably repaired by the collision industry.

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