Auto repair shops often skip an important safety step – the Boston Globe | CarTailz

But many workshops don’t care. They lack the costly equipment, trained technicians, and even the floor space required to calibrate security sensors. And so, thousands of “fixed” cars are driving around with unreliable ADAS sensors that may not warn the driver of a potential disaster.

“I think the majority of body shops definitely don’t do this,” said Kevin Gallerani, owner of Cape Auto Body in Plymouth and president of the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Massachusetts, which represents the state’s body shops. “I hate saying that. I’ll probably get assassinated for this article, but there needs to be a wake-up call.”

A recent nationwide survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that about 90 percent of new car dealerships include proper calibration with every repair. It’s mostly the small independent shops that get the short end of the stick.

“Shops are not keeping up with technology and are not investing enough time and money in their people and equipment,” said Mike Johnson, owner of Crown Collison Solutions in Bridgewater. “You are in survival mode.”

A laser alignment target is attached to the rear wheel of a 2020 Nissan at Crown Collision Solutions in Bridgewater. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

About 60 percent of cars in the US have at least one ADAS system on board, according to CCC Intelligent Solutions, an auto insurance software company. Rear parking sensors are by far the most common. But other sophisticated systems, once only found on luxury models, are also becoming standard equipment. These include blind spot warning systems, systems that prevent drivers from veering into the wrong lane, adaptive headlights that aim in the direction the car is turning, and automatic emergency braking to prevent collisions with pedestrians or other cars.

These systems rely on data received from cameras or radar units mounted in various places in the car – the front and rear bumpers, side mirrors, door panels or behind the windshield. If changes are made to any of these components, it’s time for a recalibration.

“It can be as simple as removing the bumper cover to replace a water pump on a vehicle,” said Chris Chesney, vice president of training at Repairify, a Texas-based company that provides web-based support to auto repair shops. ADAS-equipped cars have radar transmitters under the bumpers that need to be checked for proper alignment, Chesney said. Other ADAS features, such as steerable headlights, require recalibration each time the car undergoes a simple wheel alignment.

“Every manufacturer has a position statement that calibration must be performed after virtually every repair,” said Sean O’Malley, senior test coordinator at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

O’Malley said his organization has no data on whether improperly adjusted ADAS sensors cause traffic accidents. Investigators will blame the human driver and ignore the possibility of a radar malfunction, he said.

But a colleague of O’Malley noticed that her car, which was equipped with an emergency braking system, triggered a warning when crossing a bridge, but not when it got too close to the vehicle in front. Technicians noticed the car’s forward-looking radar was pointing up instead of straight ahead — a small error that could have caused a rear-end collision.

Calibrations are best performed in a specially designed maintenance bay with no clutter or garish colors to confuse the vehicle’s cameras. In addition, the floor must be as level as possible for accurate alignment of the sensors.

Thomas Johnson (left) works on a 2020 Nissan with his father, Michael Johnson, who owns Crown Collision Solutions in Bridgewater. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The store also requires a set of calibration equipment, which can cost $25,000 or more. This includes a series of targets placed at precise locations around the car. The car measures the light and radar waves bouncing off these targets and uses the data to recalibrate its sensors using a computer connected to the vehicle’s data port.

Some vehicles require an additional step – dynamic calibration, which is performed while driving.

A full recalibration can take several hours and cost anywhere from $450 to $1,200, said Paul Chaet, general manager of the Allston Collision Center in Boston. His business can’t afford the large investment in calibration equipment, so Chaet moves it to a facility in Dedham.

Gary Machiros, owner of Angie’s Service in Newbury, has his own calibration facility but says many of his colleagues don’t have one. Aside from the cost, there is often a reluctance to master the technology. “Some of these body shops are old-school guys,” Machiros said, “and they don’t know computers.”

Gallerani also blames Massachusetts insurance law, which sets a minimum labor rate of $40 an hour for auto body repairs, the lowest rate of any US state. “It’s killing the industry in Massachusetts,” he said. A bill to raise the minimum to $55 an hour died in the Massachusetts legislature earlier this year. Gallerani said that with pay scales so low, body shops could not afford to install calibration equipment and train their workers on it.

But the Insurance Institute’s O’Malley is optimistic that independent auto repair shops will eventually get involved. “The problem is slowly resolving itself,” he said.

In the meantime, owners of ADAS-equipped cars need to take care of themselves by asking technicians a simple question: “Are you calibrating?”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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