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Driverless cars can drive up the bottom line at repair shops

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 07:00
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Critics worry that autonomous vehicles will create massive job losses and put repair shop owners out of business. But owning and operating a repair shop for over 21 years has taught me that only one thing is certain about the automotive industry – it is always changing and moving.

Driverless cars are a case in point. With millions of autonomous miles logged and recent legislative changes supporting the implementation of driverless vehicles, some automotive manufacturers plan to roll out fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles to America’s roadways by as early as 2020. Despite the naysayers, I am actually excited about how this will affect the automotive repair industry.

From a mechanical and electrical perspective, autonomous vehicles are not much different from the vehicles technicians already service on a daily basis. The autonomous features are just that – “features” designed to replace drivers, not cars. The goal is to add operational awareness and intelligence without replacing any of the components that make human-controlled cars operate.

Having added the likes of parking assist, lane departure, 360 degree-view cameras and crash-avoidance systems for over a decade, manufacturers have learned that computers paired with the right algorithms consistently make better decisions than humans, and at a much faster rate. It is estimated that more than 1.3 million people around the globe die each year in car-related crashes due to driver error. So why not replace the bad decision makers – namely, the drivers? Human emotion and psychology can make this a tough sell for some of us. However, the economic and safety benefits of creating fully autonomous vehicles are too appealing to be ignored. The phenomenon is unstoppable.

As I see it, repair shops – and the parts manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers that supply them – will be among the beneficiaries of the shift to autonomous vehicles. Early implementation will most likely take place in the transportation sectors, with autonomous vehicles showing up as taxis, limousines and city buses. These vehicles will be capable of operating 24 hours a day without breaks; some will even collect money and digitally transmit it to their owners, sight unseen.

With time, fleets of driverless cars will fan out across the country to deliver groceries and mall mechandise, take seniors to church or doctor’s appointments, conduct sight-seeing tours, ferry carpoolers to and from work – the potential applications are nearly limitless. But this scenario can only play out if the vehicles run properly.

Today, the vehicles entering shops for maintenance or repairs sit parked 95 percent of the time. Tomorrow, fleets of driverless cars will spend nearly all their time on the road—with an increase in wear and tear and a proportionate need for maintenance and repair.

Technicians losing their jobs? Shop owners going out of business? On the contrary, shop owners will need to expand and hire more highly trained technicians to keep pace with the massive increase in demand that will be put on the service industry. Parts manufacturers, too, will need to ramp up production in order to keep pace with the skyrocketing demand for brake pads, tires, steering and suspension components and all of the other consumable parts that vehicles require.

In fact, parts manufacturers have already starting gearing up for the changes by offering advanced training and support networks to technicians and facilities that sell or service their products. They also recognize the need to have strong relationships with their wholesalers and suppliers in order to capitalize on the growing market.

This positive approach is just what the shift to driverless cars requires. Naturally, pessimists will continue to point to the potential downsides of the phenomenon. The rest of us can look forward to capitalizing on the new opportunities that always come with one of the basic realities of the automotive industry – rapid change.

Editor’s note: Jason Bigelow is the founder of Advanced Tire & Auto Center in Aberdeen, N.J. He specializes in diagnosing and repairing state-of-the-art, 21st-century vehicles; jason@advancedtireauto.com.

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