As calibration evolves, auto glass companies seek to reduce liability while maintaining profits.
By Scott Sowers
Windshield camera calibration continues to challenge the automotive glass industry, affecting technicians, shop owners, diagnostic tool manufacturers, customers and lawyers trying to keep everybody out of hot water and harm’s way.
Forward-facing cameras are the eyes for the car’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) which control collision warnings, lane departure warnings, parking assistance and pedestrian recognition. When a windshield is replaced, the camera typically requires recalibration.
Some shops that haven’t invested in their own calibration equipment try to rely on legal waivers signed by customers acknowledging they know their windshield camera needs to be calibrated. The waiver is supposed to protect a glass company that replaced or repaired the glass but did not calibrate the camera.
Industry leaders are skeptical about using waivers. “I think they’re pretty pointless,” says Jacques Navant, technical director of Don’s Mobile Glass based in Modesto, Calif., and chair of the Auto Glass Safety Council’s ADAS Committee. “I think that a waiver isn’t worth the paper and ink that it’s printed with. If someone’s hurt, it really means nothing. Whoever touched the car last is usually held responsible.”
Sign Here, Please
In the early days of the calibration business, Navant’s firm would take thecar in, replace the glass, then drive the car to the closest dealer for calibration. When the car was ready, they’d send a tech to get the car and drive it back to the shop. “It was tremendously challenging, and a draw on resources and manpower,” says Navant.
Part of the challenge is educating the customer about why recalibration is essential. “Five years ago, explaining calibration was a challenge,” says David Leach, COO of Don’s Mobile Glass. “Today, we are seeing more customers who understand that something is unique with their vehicle and recalibration is a necessary step.”
Don’s Mobile Glass started down its calibration road with one simple scan tool in 2017 and now does 98% of its recalibrating in house. According to Leach, investing in calibration gear can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000, with the ROI dependent on each shop’s business model.
For shops that prefer to stick with the waiver, attorneys advise following the Auto Glass Replacement Safety Standards (AGRSS) providing customers with a pre-work disclosure of why recalibration is needed. Even then, the waiver offers perilous wiggle room for the shop. “A carefully worded waiver and hold-harmless agreement, presented to and signed by the customer in advance of the replacement work, can provide a glass shop a meaningful additional layer of liability protection, but even that agreement will not assure 100% immunity from liability,” says Kim D. Mann, partner at Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, P.C., legal counsel for the Auto Glass Safety Council. The legal risk stems from the fact the shop is considered an industry expert and knows the risks, while the customer may not.
Waivers may be problematic, but the challenge of recalibrating windshield cameras reaches all the way back to the automakers.
“Car manufacturers do not value the time for recalibrations as evident in what they will pay dealerships in warranty hours,” says Glenn Fell, owner of Wyndshyld Auto Glass based in Marietta, Ga. He adds that such calibrations usually fall to tech-savvy staff, but the service hours allotted to calibration are sometimes not in accordance with how long the job actually takes.
Fell’s company doesn’t use waivers and does most recalibrations in house. If the job needs to be outsourced, it goes to a vetted and trusted partner. Some recalibrations require a test drive that adds more time to the clock. Getting paid, verifying the calibration and determining if it was done correctly sometimes pulls third-party insurance administrators into the calibration game.
“The insurance companies are pushing back on third-party administrators to make sure that customers are getting their recalibrations done,” says Peter Brown, owner of Tiny & Sons Auto Glass Co., based in Pembroke, Mass. “We have to give them the pre- and post-inspection reports. Some of them require a screenshot of the job, then you have to show them the tool.” In some cases, third-party insurance administrators reimburse the customer as opposed to the shop, adding more complexity to getting paid.
Precautions and Profits
Initially, Brown farmed out his recalibration business until he added space next door to his shop and bought his own gear. The investment is ongoing, as he just purchased a new laptop to run Ford’s updated $10,000 calibration tool. Mopar and Subaru both use their own proprietary systems.
To keep his systems paying for themselves, Brown has forged alliances with a local tire shop chain, mobile installers who don’t offer calibration, body shops and other glass shops that haven’t made the investment in calibration equipment. The profit margin for all the extra work remains thin.
“It is safe to say that with the investment in the equipment and labor involved, using a top-quality, fully trained and certified technician, we’re not making big profits off the recalibration process,” says Jon Laski, CEO of City Auto Glass based in St. Paul, Minn.
Laski’s company used waivers in the past but has since stopped. He, like many other shops doing calibration, uses several different tools and systems which make it hard to figure out the total costs of entering the calibration business. The tools are often a combination of software, scanners and targets that require certain environmental conditions to work correctly.
“They put this large target in front of the vehicle at a certain distance and then put up a scan tool, put it into calibration mode, and perform the recalibration,” says Kevin FitzPatrick, senior vice president, North America operations of Opus IVS, a Swedish diagnostic tool company with U.S. operations based in Dexter, Mich. “It has to be on an extremely flat surface.”
Flat surfaces are key, as is having enough space in front of the vehicle to put the target at the correct distance. Those two factors make mobile calibrations challenging and, at times, risky in terms of accuracy.
Installers need to take precautions when outsourcing calibration work. In some cases, the only documentation provided by the shop doing the calibration is an invoice. “You need to make sure that you get a document that gives all of the calibration values,” says Fred Iantorno, vice president of strategic solutions at AirPro Diagnostics, a tool maker based in Jacksonville, Fla. “Each one of the tools is able to put out a report, and you need to get that report.”
The tool manufacturers are trying to close liability loopholes by making sure techs are using the tools correctly. “There are places that will do the calibration, and they’ll either fake the calibration or they’ll do things outside of spec for the calibration to go through,” says Chuck Olsen, senior vice president of AirPro Diagnostics. “You can have a perfect tool and still have a technician who doesn’t use the tool properly. They can fudge the tool to get the results that they want.”
Brave New World
Calibration training typically falls to the tool manufacturers and relies heavily on videos. The training, software updates and subscription renewals are ongoing. Iantorno references the challenges of new car models that feature three separate forward-facing cameras. Questions remain with respect to camera calibration and its cascading effects on auto glass shops.
Will every shop be forced to have all the calibration gear, or will calibration split off into its own specialty business? “I think it’s going to be a mix based on their size,” says Iantorno. “The larger chains will have a separate business.” Some industry leaders see a natural progression in the skills and equipment needed to stay competitive, while theories about self-adjusting cameras swirl through the debate. “Self-calibration is nowhere on the horizon,” says Leach. “Calibration is part of our industry, just as urethane and correct chemical process came to mainstream in the early ‘90s.”
The buzz about self-driving cars has faded a bit, but the rise of emerging technology moves on. “New drivers are born with cell phones in their hands,” says Navant. “We are becoming a society that relies heavily on all things technology. They’re going to rely on the features of these vehicles more than any of us can possibly imagine.”
The challenge for small glass firms is changing with the times. “Those that are willing and able to invest in the necessary tools and training to keep up with the industry demands will be fine,” says Laski. “Like the rest of the automotive industry, the days of the garage mechanic, backyard body shop or auto glass guy are quickly coming to a close.”
“I think shops that value quality, technological advancement and the safety of their customer will have or already have this capability in-house,” says Fell. “Shops that are averse to change and averse to embracing new technology, or don’t understand technology, won’t make the investment. Those shops that also appeal to the lowest-price shopper won’t see the value for the investment.”
Scott Sowers is a contributing writer for AGRR magazine.
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