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The phrase “existential crisis” has been admittedly over used in recent years, and sometimes for good reasons, but is no less apt when applied to today’s auto insurance industry.
After many long years of stability, the 125-year-old, $300 billion U.S. auto insurance industry is caught between runaway inflationary cost pressures on one side and consumer wallets, many of which are no longer able to afford the spiraling auto insurance premium increases, on the other.
In the middle is the $42 billion U.S collision repair industry (of which $39 billion is paid by insurance) which has been experiencing severe technician shortages, rising labor costs and pricing pressure from carriers as average repair costs have jumped 50 percent over the past few years. These increases can be primarily attributed to the cost of replacement parts, scanning and calibration for newer model vehicles which are now bristling with electronic Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) features and related sensors. The even higher costs of repairing the rising number of Electronic Vehicles (EVs) further exacerbates the problem. In fact, some carriers are now writing off EVs with just moderate damage as Total Losses because of their much higher repair costs than like Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles. Total losses, which are costly for insurers, now represent almost 25 percent of all insured auto claims.
Much of the underlying repair cost discussion has centered around the more visible and tangible parts prices, supply chain inflation and delays. Longer rental car terms during the repair process, up from pre-Covid years at around 11.5 days to over 20 and now resting closer to 19 days have been cited as well. A closer look reveals a double-digit percentage jump in body shop labor rate increases, a significant change in the marketplace which is unlikely to recede. As independent body shops continue to reduce in number, venture capital backed MSO (multi-shop operator) models continue to expand, many of which are essential to insurance carrier DRP (direct repair program) networks which were introduced to deliver long-term repair cost and other business benefits.
The advent of MSOs promised to further advance repair consistency and volume cost benefits thus insurers openly embraced this new advantage in hopes of wrangling the fragmented repair space. Ironically, MSOs are now more able to flex their scale, raising rates as well as even limiting their participation in insurer DRPs, demonstrating greater influence in the marketplace. Carriers with lower density of customers in select markets are becoming powerless and more challenged in containing repair costs since volume and relationships have a louder voice. Many on the insurer side have feared that the auto repair industry would someday become akin to the healthcare insurance model in which services are rendered and reimbursed, losing the ability to contain costs.
Although this article emphasizes auto repair cost increases which are likely permanent, there are additional long-lasting culprits afoot. Social inflation is proving to be a real factor as juror and public sentiment regarding justice is changing. Add in litigation funding and the growing capital behind this budding “cottage” industry. Driver behavior and decreased law enforcement in order to prioritize on other crimes have been well studied and are offsetting gains from ADAS systems. Finally, medical costs show no signs of slowing, including the less obvious cost-shifting as the Medicare Secondary Payer rules established in 2018 extend each year with the desired effect—more costs being paid by P&C claim policies.
Many of the influences that had been keeping these cost increases at bay are no longer able to contain them.
Telematics supported Usage Based Insurance (UBI) programs enabled a large group of better (safer) drivers to take advantage of insurance discounts which these programs offered but adoption has levelled out at under 20 percent of policies, as the market awaits the next generation of telematics programs that go beyond discounts to “always on” emergency response and accident management for all policyholders. As a reflection of this market’s maturation, global market leader Cambridge Mobile Telematics (CMT) acquired rival True Motion, the second largest mobile telematics provider, in 2021.
UBI programs continue to evolve with emphasis on driver safety, saving lives and coaching components more commonplace in personal lines rather than fleet (commercial vehicles) coverage. Westfield Insurance (Westfield Center, Ohio) launched its Mission Safe program in May of 2023 which rewards drivers, and provides feedback and incentives, thus differentiating it from others. Drive Safe from State Farm, Allstate’s DriveWise, SmartRide from Nationwide and Farmers’ Signal program work similarly as switch-to-save models by enticing drivers with 30 percent to 40 percent initial discounts with the motivation to maintain discounts through good driving behaviors.
Telematics based insurance selection and pricing pioneers, Progressive Insurance (Mayfield, Ohio) maintains its leading edge and recently announced its “Accident Response” initiative focused on accident management and crash detection for all drivers, independent of a UBI program. However, tangible driver behavior and safety remains elusive with distracted driving on the rise.
Technology delivered real cost savings to both the auto insurance and collision repair industry for many years, peaking in 2022 as pandemic related changes normalized.
Auto insurers discovered that policyholders were willing, indeed anxious, to take pictures of accident damage with their smartphones to avoid contact with adjusters. And taking the appetite for a “touchless” claim experience a step further, carriers began adopting digital claim payments to policyholders and collision repairers. Not missing the opportunity to reduce overhead, carriers pared their adjusting staffs and sold off less occupied physical facilities. The gains from these major adjustments ended in 2022 as the pandemic eased, and the remaining claim staff resources are challenged to meet the higher claim volume as motorists returned to the roads, along with their more dangerous driving habits acquired on relatively empty streets and highways.
Collision repairers, especially the better funded Multi-Shop Operators, also embraced a host of cost-savings technologies spanning the intake and operational function of car repair, including repair planning, higher throughput painting and drying booths, scanning and calibration, automated parts procurement and customer communication technologies. Again, most of the economic gains from these advances are now “baked in” while the tide is changing toward higher cost of repairs.
The Great Rebalancing
As a result of all the above, there is a “Great Rebalancing” underway as each of the major stakeholders scramble to adjust to the new normal. The critical question is whether they can both adapt quickly enough to forestall what could be a major consumer and/or investor led disruption.
A consumer groundswell of resistance to further auto insurance price increases could lead to broader market interference by state or federal regulators who have the power to effectively influence rates (much like is playing out now for auto in California and recently in the Florida property insurance market).
It is not unreasonable to expect accelerated consolidation within the auto insurance market as investors, Boards and financial activists push the worst performing carriers to explore all strategic options.
And as the collision repair industry continues to consolidate as a result of additional investor involvement, the largest MSOs have gained and will likely exceed negotiating parity with auto insurers and extract better commercial terms to cover their rising costs, thus adding further pressure on auto insurers’ results.
Overlay on all of this the slow but sure conversion of the carparc from ICE to EV vehicles as the expected self-imposed 2035 switchover deadline approaches, along with the higher price tags, operating and repair costs for these battery-operated “computers on wheels”, and consumers are going to have to absorb further material increases in their cost of transportation.
You should not conclude that we are pessimistic about the outcome here. We are confident that American ingenuity, bolstered by new and exciting technologies, and our faith in the American appetite for affordable mobility, will prevail. What we can’t see quite as clearly is exactly how and where the various players will come out.