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Massimo Brunamonti

Automotive and auto repairs: great changes ahead

Judging by the most recent international fairs, the size and importance of the changes that are going to affect the automotive sector and by consequence the world of car repairs were easily observed by all in attendance.
The leitmotiv at the 2014 Automechanika in Frankfurt was all about alternative engines, online networks, energy efficiency, hybrid technologies and remote servicing.

Similarly, at the 2014 SEMA in Las Vegas, press releases and seminars on topics such as "connected cars", hybrid technology and new composite materials were the order of the day.

Comparing the various topics considered with the current situation of the car repair sector in the western part of the world, we cannot help but wonder at what the future will hold.

Noteworthy, in this regard, is a recent study developed by Jester Study for the Dutch associations BOVAG and RAI, dedicated specifically to the changes in the automotive world. The field is vast and the study begins by observing the changes in the motorists’ attitudes and behavior. First fundamental consideration: we will have to deal less and less with "car owners" and  much more with "car users"; whether through a leasing scheme, rentals or pure "sharing" of various types, motorists will be less directly involved with the maintenance of the vehicles. Not to be overlooked is the tendency towards a maintenance program that could generate a substantial increase in the volume of business for auto repair shops.

"Connected cars" are the hot topic for the immediate future: cars will become like routers on wheels with everything needed already available on board, service included. It begins with the mandatory, in the EU from October 2015, e-call for emergency calls; this is nothing more than the first step to a whole range of services now only partially imaginable including diagnostic measures and technical online assistance.

An important role in this changing market will be played by new powerful commercial "intermediaries". Online operators such as eBay, Groupon, Carsom, etc. are already playing the game, and presumably in the future will considerably strengthen their presence, deeply affecting the dynamics of car repairs by positioning themselves between the motorist and the garage.

New engines, innovative materials and systems, driver assistance technology (autonomous car) and many other innovations, in addition to requiring constant updating, will contribute to further specialize the sector’s offer.

And finally, the advent of a new generation of motorists, less sensitive to the car as a status symbol, considering it no more than a mere means of transport, will definitely affect the sector in ways hardly quantifiable at the moment but not to be overlooked.

As a whole, the situation might seem likely to make one’s hands tremble; so many are the changes in perspective, that the first impulse might be to just drop everything; after all, nothing suggests that the overall volume of business is going to decrease, in fact, what we can expect is more demanding car users, greater complexity and new technologies that will generate greater business opportunities. Those of us who have already witnessed great changes can testify that stagnation, and not changes, is a cause of problems. Therefore, let us welcome these changes, if we can manage them.


New refrigerants: Europe raises its voice

The controversy that began in the summer of 2013 on refrigerants for air conditioning systems still continues. Many will remember that the issue began with the registration block in France of some Mercedes vehicles that did not fully comply with the EU Directive 2006/40 / EC,  also known as MAC Directive, but previously approved in Germany, in contrast with the same Directive.

The news is that, as a result of further investigations that have cleared the field from the assumptions of danger incurred by Daimler-Benz, the European Commission has launched an infringement procedure against Germany in order to take all necessary actions for the proper application of the Directive.

At the same time, the Commission also acknowledged that there is a problem generated by the start of production of R-1234yf gas by Honeywell and DuPont: the cost. Unfortunately, even today the price of this gas has not reached the desired levels. Brussels took the initiative by sending a Statement of Objection to Honeywell and DuPont, stating that these companies have prevented fair competition on the market for the gas R-1234yf in violation of EU antitrust rules. This public communication marks the beginning of a process of investigation that could also lead to sanctions against the two companies, should the Commission consider them guilty of obstruction to the free market.

It is important to remember that the MAC Directive, as the European Commission reaffirms once again, does not define the type of gas to be used, but it establishes the degree of environmental safety. The industry, after research and experiments, leaned in favor of the R1234yf. Now some car manufacturers are thinking back to some alternative solutions already examined in the past, such as the use of CO2 (R744).

The issue has a high political impact, and the Commission has an obligation to act to ensure that the directive is equally applied throughout the EU by all member states and without distortions of competition. While on the one hand all Member States have ensured that they are ready to implement the general prohibition on the use of R134a on the deadline date of 1 January 2017, on the other hand, the Commission has decided to review the MAC Directive to prevent the recurrence of cases like this and control the risks present in the various domestic markets.

Of great interest to manufacturers of automotive equipment is the chance that alternative solutions to the R-1234yf gas such as CO2 are chosen as refrigerants for some models. This means that repair shops will need to have different types of equipment for charging air conditioning systems depending on the gas used (R134a, R1234yf, CO2). The hypothesis is not at all farfetched and manufacturers will have time to prepare for such an eventuality, which ultimately could prove to be an excellent business opportunity.




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