*this should not be taken as financial or business advice. If you own a crash repair business please take professional advice before making any decisions.
I am just going through the process of getting some minor damage repaired on our car and have been ruminating on the future of the insurance and repair model when we have driverless (autonomous) cars. This was also prompted by a couple of stories in The Age here in Melbourne:
The first story describes how Ray Malone has built a Australia’s largest crash repair business, and is aiming to grow it even further. That would seem to go against the title of this post but it actually feeds into my thinking because Ray’s company provides wholesale service aftercare which will be vital in the scenario I am describing.
The second story is about how trials of driverless cars are starting here in Melbourne. This follows a large number of trials that are being conducted in various countries around the world.
Once we move to a reasonably widespread adoption of autonomous/driverless cars the local crash repair business will basically disappear except for a few large operators like Ray Malone but even his business could be under threat . The key reasons for this are:
1/ It has been forecast that autonomous cars will significantly reduce the number of car accidents that occur. This is based largely on the statistics that human error causes more than 90% of traffic crashes. So if we can eliminate the crashes caused by idiots, people under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and people driving tired or angry (Police looked into the deaths of 86 people on Victorian roads last year and found that in more than 10 per cent of cases the driver had experienced a traumatic or upsetting event.) we can significantly reduce the number of accidents.
Against this argument is that autonomous cars supplying a transport service may result in people travelling further and perhaps take more risks. Certainly it will allow elderly people who cannot drive, and young people who do not have a licence to travel in cars more than they otherwise would. There have also been arguments that because we feel safer we may take more risks as pedestrians or cyclists. If we are conservative and say that only 50% of accidents caused by human behaviour will be eliminated we still have a significant fall in accidents.
2/ It is highly likely that we will see large fleet models emerge where large numbers of people choose not to own a vehicle. If the overall travel costs are lower than owning your own vehicle, and you can get a vehicle anytime you need one then the convenience of transport as a service outweighs the personal ownership model. The economics for fleet owners are different than for individual owners when it comes to crash repair services. Fleet owners will want large scale service operations to reduce costs or will pay far less for the services of smaller scale operators. This feeds into a large supplier (such as Ray Malone’s company) snapping up more business. Larger scale crash repair businesses will benefit from the economies of scale that allow them to use new technologies such as robotics to increase throughput and reduce costs.
3/ The model for crash repair business location will change. Currently crash repair businesses are located in scattered locations throughout the suburbs and inner city. This is because if I want to take my car in for crash repairs there is a significant time cost for me to take my car to a location that is not near to my house or business. I have to travel to the crash repair business, and then get back to my home or place of work. So I want the crash repair business to be reasonably close. The location is mainly driven by the customer. If my personal driverless car needs crash repairs it can drive itself to the crash repair site, and a fleet service or a shared personal car service can replace my transport needs in the meantime.
If I was asked to drive my car (actual damage pictured below) to a service centre 40 km away I would not be very happy, but if my car can take itself then location becomes much less important and the costs of the business become far more important. Locating the crash repair business in areas of lower property costs with good transport links makes far more sense. It also means that the employees of the business will have lower property costs if they live locally. We already see this model in light manufacturing and food processing/handling facilities locating around hubs on ring roads, away from inner suburbs with high property prices.
If a fleet ownership model predominates over personal ownership this effect will be even higher as large scale fleets look for cost reductions through economies of scale.
So if we summarise all the factors together if we assume a 45% reduction in total accidents (50% of human error crashes) and a tripling of scale that comes from the changes described above we get an 82% reduction in the number of crash repair businesses in any city. I believe that the changes in scale may be even higher and we may end up with only 5-10% of the number of current crash repair businesses being economically viable.
If I own a crash repair business in any suburb in any of our major cities I will come under pressure from a high scale panel beater business set up on the fringes of the city with lower property costs.
So, if you are a crash repair business:
- Assess whether now is a good time to sell to someone else who does not understand these changes.
- If you think I am wrong then you should suspend that thought for just a few minutes and think about what it means to your business and your assets if I am right. Even if you think that chance is only 5% you should set up a series of questions for yourself to monitor in coming years so that you can change your mind if the changes start to happen. Those questions include:
- Is the practical outcome of accident reduction matching the rhetoric of the technology experts and the modellers? Look for signs of early change, cities where adoption is at the forefront of the change and make an assessment as to whether the predictions on accident reduction are true (or even going to be exceeded) and then think about the timing of the implications.
- Look for areas or cities where the first full scale mass adoption of driverless cars might take place. For example Singapore, with a small land mass, and a relatively authoritarian government might be one. This will give you early signs of what larger scale adoption might look like.
- Is the adoption model going to be a personal one or a mass fleet one? If the model is primarily a personal one then you should be thinking about whether you can become one of the new mega panel beaters on the fringes of the city that will survive the change. If the model looks to be a primarily mass fleet adoption one then there are less possibilities. Those fleet operators will either run their own operations which are standardised and mechanised or they will use their economies of scale to drive down margins in the businesses that supply them. You can still run a good business that way but the opportunities will be limited and will require lots of capital to create the volume throughput and economies of scale required. You will have to compete with the Ray Malone’s of this world.
- Are any early models of very large scale, city fringe located crash repair businesses starting to emerge anywhere around the world? Are they successful?
- Are car companies changing their business models for car repairs. For instance electric cars have far less moving parts than internal combustion cars. Does that make a difference to your business model? Are modularised car construction and repair systems emerging that will increase the capacity to adopt robotic repair and maintenance systems that will advantage large throughput car repair and maintenance systems?
While these changes may take 15 years to start to significantly impact on the crash repair business, once they become obvious the window to realise the business value by sale will quickly snap shut.
This is just one of the many implications of change from the widescale adoption of driverless cars.I am writing a book on driverless vehicles with Chris Rice (@ricetopher). It is called “Rise of the Autobots: How driverless vehicles will transform our economies and our communities. Stay tuned for more writing as we develop our thinking further.