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Mobility Why the cost of replacing a cracked windshield is skyrocketing

The cost of repairing a cracked windshield is increasing.

Belron

When Alyssa Berry found a crack on the windshield of her week-old 2018 Honda CRV in March, she immediately planned to get a new one. But like most Canadians, she doesn’t have windshield-replacement insurance – and the replacement quote stunned her. Berry, of Calgary, was told a new windshield would cost her $700 – more than three times the $200 repair she did twice on her 2007 RAV4.

“It was a shock,” she said. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Across the country, Canadian drivers are having a similar reality check when they move to restore broken glass. Berry’s vehicle, like 37 per cent of those sold this year, comes equipped with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). These systems include features such as as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot warning and surround-view camera.

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Many ADAS features are dependent on an image-processing module (commonly referred to as a camera) mounted in the windshield. The camera must be calibrated when a windshield is replaced; if it’s not, the safety systems will not work properly. Repairs at aftermarket shops and dealerships start at $700 and can quickly climb into four figures, depending on the vehicle.

Worse, discount aftermarket windshields may compound the problem, said Chris Davies, head of technical research and innovation for Belron, a global auto glass company that operates in Canada under the Speedy Auto Glass, Apple Auto Glass and Lebeau Vitres d’autos brands.

Davies says the quality of the glass and tolerance of brackets can affect the camera’s function.

“If the quality of the bracket is out of position, then there’s no way the software will create the correct reference points for the calibration,” he said in a telephone interview from Britain. Belron deals with a limited range of suppliers who meet manufacturers’ specifications, he said.

Canadians are just learning about the importance of calibration. In June, 2018, Mike Ash of Conception Bay South, N.L., complained that when he had the windshield replaced on his wife’s 2016 Acura MDX, it became quickly apparent the lane-keeping feature was malfunctioning.

“As I was driving along the highway, which changed to one lane … I realized the system was pulling me into oncoming traffic,” Ash said in an e-mail interview. “I was simply was not aware of the risks associated with a windshield replacement and I don’t think many people are.”

“Unbelievable to think my vehicle can steer itself into oncoming traffic.”

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After a series of e-mail disagreements with Honda, he decided to just put tape over the camera so the feature wouldn’t engage.

A robot mounts a windshield on a Mercedes-Benz A Class at the Daimler AG factory in Rastatt, Germany.

THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty Images

High-tech ADAS are billed as potential boons to traffic safety, decreasing accident rates over time. A study by the IHS Automotive consulting firm forecast that 11 per cent to 21 per cent of all collisions in the United States could be avoided with fully functioning ADAS systems.

But when the camera is not calibrated after windshield replacement, cars can wander into the wrong lanes, adaptive cruise control may miscalculate distances, and automatic braking systems can engage either too soon or too late.

Calibration procedures vary, depending on the make and trim model of the vehicle. Some require “static” calibration – a process that must be done in a well-lit shop with a perfectly level floor, and enough space to position targets to adjust the sensors. Shops must purchase single-purpose equipment from suppliers such as Bosch and Opti-Aim. The equipment uses lasers to bisect the car and create virtual lanes for the vehicle.

Others ADAS-equipped cars require “dynamic” calibration, in which technicians plug a device into the car and then take it on the road to make adjustments. That can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, says Alfie Ogston, owner of several Crystal Glass franchises in Calgary.

Some vehicles require both static and dynamic calibration.

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Davies, of Belron, says consumers do not yet fully appreciate how a non-calibrated camera can put them at risk.

“The consumer does not understand the ADAS systems very well,” he said, adding a review by MIT revealed, “Even some dealerships don’t understand the systems very well.”

Ogston’s company charges an average of $150 above the cost of windshield replacement for calibration, depending on the complexity of the task.

Hugues Mousseau, vice-president and partner with Syrus Reputation – which represents Belron – says by 2023 more than half of the cars on the road in Canada (about one million) will be ADAS equipped.

Belron has been calibrating cameras in Europe for years, Mousseau says, and this year will perform the service on more than 500,000 vehicles around the world.

Mousseau understands why consumers are confused: With unique procedures various trim levels on 34 brands of vehicles in Canada, he said there up to 2,600 possible protocols for calibration.

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“It’s quite chaotic,” he said.

Ogston says consumers get angry when they learn of the extra cost of replacement. Even if the windshield is insured, not all companies will pay the extra cost for calibration. That means the consumer has to pay about $150 over and above their deductible for the calibration work.

“Most won’t,” he said.

Technicians are instructed to tell the owner about the need for calibration and risks associated with not having it done. If they refuse, they are required to sign a disclosure form.

“I’ve got a pile of disclosure forms in my office,” he said.

Consumers are advised to check with their insurance company to determine whether calibration is covered.

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Jennifer Beck, senior consultant, communications, for Belairdirect and Intact insurance, says her company advises drivers to go to vendors that are part of the Rely Network of approved service companies.

“In the event that a glass shop has difficulties with the calibration, we automatically send the vehicle to the dealer for the proper calibration and will pay for that service,” she said.

Ian Jack, managing director of communications for the Canadian Automobile Association, notes the windshield camera is just one of many ADAS features that need to be serviced after repairs. The CAA is launching a website in spring to inform drivers about the need for ADAS maintenance.

“An awful lot of people don’t understand what these systems will do – and don’t do,” Jack said.

In frosty Calgary, snowy roads are treated with fine gravel rather than salt – and pitted and cracked windshields are as common as 4X4 pickups. For Berry, the experience left her “cheesed off.” She will eventually have to get the replacement done on her leased vehicle, but is putting it off because it continues to accumulate new rock chips.

Had she known about the cost of windshield repair, she said, she might have chosen a different model. Once this windshield is replaced, she’ll upgrade her insurance.

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“Nobody told me about this when I bought the car,” she said. “It was an eye-opener for me.”

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