Monday, 02 February 2015 00:00

Attempt by Edmunds.com to Investigate Aluminum Repair Rates Runs into Controversy

A recent video released by Edmunds.com has caused controversy in the industry. During the two-minute video, Travis Langness, the Assistant Editor at Edmunds.com, hit a brand new 2015 Ford F-150 with a sledgehammer. Twice! Ouch, said several industry players, but it wasn’t just about the damage to the truck.

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His intent? To find out if it takes longer to repair the aluminum-bodied truck than a steel-bodied one and, perhaps, belatedly, to compare the costs involved. Langness drove the F-150 to the body shop at Santa Monica Ford in greater Los Angeles to put it to the test. After going through the repair process, and admitting in his article that he had misrepresented the nature of the damage, he concluded that it took more time to fix the aluminum body panels and cost more money than repairing steel. The original version is reprinted with permission from Edmunds.com in the upcoming March print issues of Autobody News.

Autobody News asked Edmunds.com for further comment. "As with any vehicle in Edmunds' Long-Term testing fleet, our F-150 experiment was designed to simulate a service experience of any regular truck owner," said Scott Oldham, editor in chief at Edmunds.com. "Like many of these owners, we took our vehicle to the nearest Ford dealership for the repairs. The service advisor said that his facility could handle the repairs, and we trusted him to get the work done. While we were surprised to learn from the advisor that the repairs typically cost twice as much and typically take twice as long on the new aluminum-bodied truck as the steel-bodied truck, we were able to confirm those facts with a trusted local independent body shop. In the end, the work was performed within the time and the cost that was quoted to us, and we were satisfied with the quality of the repairs.”

However, Edmunds.com did not test a steel-bodied truck with damage from a similar impact.

Autobody News contacted Ron Davis, owner of Santa Monica Ford, and learned that he had no idea that Langness was pretending to be an ordinary collision customer. “I think it’s silly to try and extrapolate an industry trend from a $2,500 repair,” Davis said. “It seems like they came in with an agenda.”

Davis said the dealership made a quality repair and charged a fair price. “Edmunds is making a mountain out of a molehill,” he said. “To draw conclusions on an industry trend from an isolated case on a small repair like this is a faulty conclusion on the part of Edmunds.”

A typical repair of course is not going to be the result of a sledgehammer dent. This was a unique situation and may not represent standard repairs statistically. However, the question remains, ‘Is this going to be the general case for aluminum repairs?’

“We really won’t know the impact for awhile because we use a make and model rating system, which is basically based on our claims data,” said Dick Luedke, spokesperson for State Farm Insurance.

He said the insurance company typically tracks the cost of insuring every vehicle by make and model. “When those costs change because of a change in the structure of the vehicle, as is the case is here for the Ford F-150, we will be able to see what impact that has, whether it increases the cost or decreases the cost and we adjust our premiums accordingly.”

There has been much speculation among auto body shops that aluminum repair will be more expensive because raw aluminum costs more than raw steel. “We don’t make that supposition,” said Luedke. “We let our data tell us whether that is actually true before we actually change our prices. Generally speaking you need about a year’s worth of data for it to be at all meaningful.”

Autobody News spoke to Michael Levine, Truck Communications Manager at Ford Motor Company, regarding the video posted by Edmunds.com.

“In our experience, the cost to repair cosmetic damage to aluminum is comparable to steel,” said Levine. “For cosmetic repairs, aluminum isn’t really any more difficult to repair than steel is based on historical data collected from repairs of other Ford vehicles with aluminum body panels; it just requires different training and it might require different tools.” He said it should have taken less than 10 hours to repair the truck.

Ford has used an aluminum hood on the Ford F-150 since 1997. Levine said that by using high-strength aluminum alloy that’s more dent- and ding-resistant than the steel body of the outgoing truck, the company is able to significantly reduce the weight of the Ford truck by up to 700 pounds. “When we do that, the weight saved comes back to the customer in terms of better performance. The truck accelerates faster, it brakes sooner, it can tow more, it can haul more and it helps get better fuel efficiency,” said Levine.

“…In the event of a major collision we’re actually going to save time over the previous steel truck because we’ve designed the truck in a modular fashion so some structural repairs can be completed with less labor,” he said. The 2015 Ford F-150 went on sale this past November and is now available nationwide.

In the case of Langness's truck, he paid cash for the F-150 repair so an insurance company was not involved. He also made it clear that the truck would not be resold any time soon. Levine said each Ford dealer and independent body shop sets it own hourly repair rates, based on the local market.

Todd Hesford, the owner of Mission Viego Auto Collision in Orange County, CA, is in agreement that ultimately it will be up to the individual body shop in regards to price. “From our personal standpoint, I have zero ideas of raising the prices specifically for aluminum repair.”

He said as a business if you want to stay relevant and in the game, you need to invest in the tooling and education to fix today’s cars. “To think that we’re going to have two types of costs just because one is made out of a different material, I think that’s foolish because aluminum has been around for a long time and we haven’t had two sets of prices,” said. Hesford's family has owned Mission Viego Auto Collision since 1979 and been based in the same location since 1983. Hesford, however, did say he finds aluminum repair to be more challenging than similar repairs to steel.

“If you speak to anybody, the OEMs, the insurance companies, the collision centers, they are all going to agree and tell you that repairing aluminum is more difficult and it does take longer.”

After watching the video, Hesford said, “I don’t think the test was very fair. You say you want to do a test and a comparison, where is the same hit on the same truck with the same amount of pressure in the same spot with a steel-bodied car?”

He did find it impressive that the aluminum held up. “Hat’s off to Ford because that thing took a hit,” he said. “The one thing I learned is that truck is tough!”

Oldham from Edmunds.com said this experiment underscores the importance of buying and testing vehicles to give their audience a true scope of the ownership experience.

"We'll continue to put our Ford F-150 through the paces over the next year and report on all of the good and bad and everything in between," he added.

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