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Lighter Car Body Materials Add Up in Repair Costs

Lightweight Body Materials in Cars
The growing use of carbon fiber, aluminum, and other lightweight car materials in modern cars is proving to be a double-edged sword for consumers. On the one hand, such materials have made cars significantly lighter and therefore, more fuel-efficient than older cars. The materials have also made modern cars dramatically more resistant to crashes than previous generation models. But, the benefits have come at a cost. The exotic, high-end materials found in many modern cars is usually harder and costlier to repair after an accident, and spare car body parts tend to be a lot more expensive as well.

Federal Mandates Drive Sweeping Changes

Federal fuel-efficiency and car safety mandates are pushing automakers to integrate new, and more expensive, technologies in their automobiles. For instance, automakers have increasingly started using lightweight aluminum instead of steel in car bodies. Auto industry experts believe that, by 2025, the amount of aluminum in car bodies will increase from the current average of around 327 pounds to about 550 pounds per car. Carbon fiber is another lightweight material that is finding growing favor among automakers. Carbon fiber has always been a preferred material in sports cars, such as the Tesla Model S, and some high-end vehicles, but it has been less commonly used in commercial vehicles because of its high costs. With the price of the material finally beginning to drop, a growing number of automakers have started using carbon fiber in their vehicles.

Unexpected Problems

As beneficial as these technologies have been, they have also created some unexpected problems. Spare parts made of carbon fiber and aluminum tends to be costlier than parts made of traditional car body materials, such as steel and iron. The new materials also require new repair tools and special techniques for repairs. In order to handle repairs on new cars, auto repair shops often have to invest in costly new equipment ranging from new high-strength drill bits to expensive new frame racks that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Often, some of the new material can only be replaced, not repaired. When material like aluminum is involved, repair shops can no longer simply cut away a damaged section of material and weld in a replacement piece. Often, the heat generated during the welding process can weaken the material and introduce dangerous structural integrity problems, so the best option in many cases is to simply replace the entire section.

Haves and Have Nots

The trend is resulting in the creation of a new category of haves and have-nots in the automobile repair industry, according to industry experts. Body shop business that do not have the resources to buy the new equipment needed to handle modern materials could soon find themselves outflanked by businesses that do have the ability to do so. For consumers, the trend could result in less choice at least in the near future, according to experts. Another issue that consumers need to worry about is dangerous repair shortcuts and the substitution of inexpensive parts for the more expensive parts that originally came with the car.