auto

High tech car gadgets are cool, until they need repair

Just figuring out exactly how much the option costs is difficult. Lexus doesn't sell it as a stand-alone option, but packages the system with other features ranging in price from $1,200 to $4,800. 

So, calculating what it would cost to repair the automatic parking function, if it were damaged in a crash or failed entirely after warranty, is near impossible. But collision repair experts say that a general rule of thumb is that the cost of repairing or replacing an option can run five to seven times the cost of the option when the vehicle was new.

Satellite navigation: Once only available on vehicles costing $50,000 or more, even garden-variety, 2007 Hondas can now be ordered with an in-dash navigation system. The cost of the sat-nav option is still between $1,200 and $2,000 on a new car, but should the unthinkable happen and your 5-year-old hurls something at the navigation screen and smashes it, it could cost as much as $7,000 to replace, especially if the screen also incorporates control of other functions, such as the audio system or climate control.

"One of the issues that most people aren't aware of is that manufacturers have piggybacked systems onto other systems, so that when one is damaged, it will take out other functions," says Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute. Whereas years ago a faulty power window usually involved just a switch in the door, now the malfunction may be linked to a failure of a computer module that controls other things, as well.

Keyless ignition systems: Key fobs that transmit a low-power signal to the car, allowing it to be started by pressing a button on the dash -- are all the rage. Just don't lose the key fob. That could require reprogramming or replacing of one of the car's control modules at a cost of $200 to $600.

Aluminum body parts: Another potentially costly area involves greater use of aluminum in vehicles. Some cars, such as the Audi A8 and the Jaguar XJ sedans, use aluminum almost exclusively in the body and chassis to cut down on weight and improve fuel economy.

The problem is that an aluminum car requires special knowledge and tools to repair -- something that most body shops are not equipped to tackle.

Hazelbaker related a case of a man in Hawaii who bought one of the first Audi A8 sedans and then was involved in an accident. There was no place on the islands equipped to fix the car and it had to be shipped to California for repair at tremendous cost to the insurance company and depriving the owner of his car for months.

"Aluminum is a great material. Insurance companies don't have safety concerns, but there are repair issues, and it's all about cost," Hazelbaker says, pointing out that insurance companies are starting to factor in the cost of high-tech items into rates for collision coverage.

A numbers game
For consumers, all these issues of cost, related to the new high-tech features found on new cars, become more of a concern as the vehicles age.

For the person who buys a car new, most failures of things like navigation systems or rain-sensing windshield wipers will be covered either by warranty or insurance. But for someone who buys a car that's four years old or more, high-tech failures could become more of a pocketbook issue.

It could become prohibitively expensive for people to fix things that go kaput or they could get unwelcome news from their insurance companies that their cars, which only have a crumpled fender or two, are going to be totaled because of the costs to fix damaged high-tech features.

Once the cost of the repairs exceeds a certain percentage of the current value of the car -- often 60 percent to 80 percent -- the insurance company will consider the car a total loss and will not pay to make the repairs.

Brent O'Neill, a master mechanic with a shop in Pembroke Park, Fla., notes, "It will soon get to the point that after a car is six or seven years old it will be too expensive to fix a lot of these new features. Cars will become even more disposable items."

 Terry Jackson is an automotive writer based in Florida.

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