Last week, a pretty common and minor-looking fender-bender ended up going viral on the Rivian Owners’ Forum. The wreck, a relatively low-speed rear-end collision involving a Lexus RX330 bumping an electric Rivian R1T’s passenger side rear corner, resulted in what looked like minor damage. A bent bumper cover, a dent in the tailgate — the sort of things that many truck owners would just learn to live with as part of the Truck Life. But a fancy new electric Rivian is no ordinary truck, and this was no ordinary repair bill.
According to the owner, the Lexus’s insurance adjuster came back with an estimate of $1,600 — about what most of us might have guessed. Of course, we’d have guessed very, very wrong, because the final bill came to over $42,000. I mean, good guess, it was just, oh, 26 times too low.
After the sordid tale of mildly bent metal and plastic blew up after being covered by several outlets including Carscoops and The Drive, we dug deeper to try to find out why this repair cost as much as an entire Tesla Model 3. I made some calls — a lot of calls, actually, and now I think I have a reasonable explanation, but it’s one that just makes me feel like this is a harbinger of a larger problem. I don’t mean just a Rivian problem; this is a particularly egregious example of how punishing and unforgiving some modern cars can be to fix.
First, here’s the text of the post, from the owner Chris Apfelstadt (whose last name translates from German to “apple city,” if you’re curious):
“In early February, I was rear ended in my R1T. No airbags went off and the collision was at a relatively low speed. The other driver asked what kind of car I was driving, and my response was “the kind that is going to piss off your insurance company!” I figured the repair would be expensive but had no idea!
Originally her insurance estimated the damage to be around $1600 and sent me a check. I live in central Ohio and 1 of the 3 Rivian certified body shops in the state is about 40 minutes away from my house. The shop is called k-Ceps and they have a 70,000 sf warehouse dedicated to ev’s. They were incredibly meticulous and detailed and completely disassembled the rear end of my truck to discover all of the damage.
They carefully documented every step with photographs to show the insurance company the process and It took over two and half months to finally get my truck back. They did an incredible job and my R1T looks as nice as the day it was shipped. The final bill was over $42,000!!!
I have heard that Rivian made some concessions in the repairability in order to keep the Aesthetics a certain way. All I know is that this is a very expensive vehicle to fix! Her policy maxes out at $50k and with the car rental, we are close. Next I have to try and fight with the insurance for the diminished value. It feels good to have my truck back! It was almost like waiting for delivery all over again!”
Above you can see Chris’ picture of the wreck, and here’s the aftermath of the damage to the truck:
I mean, really, that doesn’t look bad at all. The Lexus seemed to have fared much worse, at least from that picture. Here we see a banged-up bumper cover, a lost reflector, and I think a bit of a dent in the tailgate and maybe the rear fender/bedside, but it’s pretty hard to tell. It just doesn’t look all that bad. Sure, that bumper cover has some ultrasonic sensors and stuff in there, but, really, this hardly seems like a huge deal.
The Repair Process
So why the hell does the one in-progress repair picture show the entire inner bed assembly removed, the tailgate removed, and even the cab’s rear window glass uninstalled?
It also looks like at least some sections of the roof panel have been removed. But all of this for a little tag on the rear corner and bumper? I guess I can see why the tailgate and bumper assembly would need to come off, but this truck has been half stripped down to the frame. Nothing is making any sense.
So, I reached out to the owner and asked him exactly what happened. Here’s what he told me (emphasis mine):
The bed came out to look for sure her damage to the frame and brackets. The bed quarter panel on most trucks is standalone. For the Rivian, it is one piece from the back corner all the way up to the front windshield. Since that piece was damaged, it had to be removed and replaced and then painted. To properly access it, they removed the back windshield.
The biggest story here is that what appears to be a minor accident on the surface, can be much more costly to fix. The truck is designed absorb the impact to limit injuries to the driver and passengers.
Now, what Chris is talking about here is something that body shops that work on Rivians seem to call a “unipanel” or a “uniside,” at least according to the few body shops that actually would discuss anything with me. The unipanel is essentially the entire outer body skin, minus the doors and side cargo area hatch, from the end of the bed up to the windshield frame/A-pillar:
Cars with huge, unbroken body panels certainly aren’t unknown: both the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia and the Volvo 1800S had one-piece bodies, with only doors, hood, and trunk/engine lids separate. Those cars’ bodies are also notoriously tough and expensive to fix in collisions, because you couldn’t just, say, bolt off a dented fender and pop on a new one. But, they were still just steel, not aluminum (it’s worth noting that the Rivian has steel throughout its body as well, especially in major frame crossmembers), and built with 1960s and 1970s tolerances, all far, far easier things to deal with for a body shop.
The Rivian, however, is a different story.
How The Body Shop Explained It
I reached out to the body shop that did the work, K-Ceps Auto Body in Johnstown, Ohio, and asked why this repair was so outlandishly expensive. After being put off for about a week, I was finally able to talk directly to the shop, who confirmed the cost of the repairs, and helped explain a bit about why the bill was so dizzyingly high.
First, there were some charges that would be very specific to this particular case: the truck had an aftermarket ceramic coating that needed replacing, it needed a tow to Cleveland to have the sensors re-calibrated after the work, and there was about $10,000 in “sublet operations,” which was work that had to be done outside of the shop itself. All of this is according to my conversation with the shop, and all of these things definitely add up.
Chris seems to have been a bit mistaken about the unipanel requiring removal; the shop told me that the unipanel stayed on, but, because the tailgate needed replacing, the unipanel had to be repainted to match, and to do that it needed to be de-trimmed — a process that proved to be incredibly, even shockingly, complex.
De-trimming a Rivian is a hell of a lot different than popping off some chrome trim with a spatula; to de-trim that whole unipanel so it’s prepared for a full paint job, the inner tub of the bed needed to be removed (you can see Munro do that in the video below), along with the rear window and the roof spoiler. And to get the roof spoiler out, you need to remove the headliner inside, and to get the headliner out you need to remove the windshield.
I just want to restate this bit so we’re all clear here: because this truck had a low-speed hit to the rear bumper area, somehow that ended up meaning that the freaking headliner had to be removed. From inside the car, many feet away from where the car was hit. Through the windshield.
So, by the time all of that is done, an awful lot of that truck has been disassembled. And that’s not even addressing the new bumper or the brackets behind the bumper and the rear under-bumper sill panel, which, in this case, did sustain some damage, and had to be replaced, also a non-trivial job because they’re riveted and bonded into place, according to the person I spoke with at K-Ceps.
In short, the cascade effect that starts with needing to paint a new tailgate to the color-matching quality demanded turned into a process that took apart half a very complex pickup truck. I was not able to get an itemized list of the work from the folks at the body shop, who said that a lot of the procedures on there constituted proprietary Rivian information, and the owner declined to send me his itemized receipt, stating that he was “advised not to send it to anyone.” I asked why, but never got an answer back.
(Editor’s Note: This all sounds a little silly but their excuse doesn’t surprise me. The new EV tech startups, in particular, try and keep a tight lid on their tech and processes, as they may have new manufacturing techniques or software they don’t want getting to competitors — or just think they do. Tesla also keeps a tight grip on who’s “authorized” to fix its cars, and it’s been subject to lawsuits over this. -PG)
The body shop told me that this process isn’t all that different than other unibody pickup trucks, like the Honda Ridgeline, though I’ve not encountered any stories about repairs from a minor wreck that would total a brand-new Ridgeline, which, at $38, 800, costs less than the repairs to this Rivian.
What Rivian Said
I reached out to Rivian itself to ask if this scale of repair costs for such a minor incident was normal, and I got a polite but very uninformative statement back from a “Rivian spokesperson”:
“The nature of the repair and the parts and labor required with this specific case meant this bill was higher than what we’d expect for the average customer. We will certainly take this case into account as we continually seek to enhance our products and quality of service.”
What Munro Said
I also reached out to Cory Stuben at Munro and Associates, who have a Rivian R1T they’ve been evaluating and disassembling. Cory was very surprised at the overall costs and initially wondered if there was any sort of frame damage to the truck to justify the expense.
He also noted that the Rivian is built in a very robust way that combines both unibody qualities and body-on-frame construction, with the body hard-mounted to the frame. Cory did send me some good pictures of what the structures look like behind the bumper in the area where the impact happened, and you can see some riveted/bonded brackets and elements:
Cory was also shocked at the idea that an entire side body skin might need replacing, and I did research that a bit more by calling other Rivian-approved body shops. It seems that replacing a whole unipanel is a thing that happens, though at least one body shop told me that Rivian does have procedures for sectioning parts from the unipanel so that you can, say, just replace the outer side of the bed up to the cab instead of having to do the entire thing and removing glass and doors and headliner, etc. But, sometimes, that whole panel does need replacing.
While at first I saw that gut-punch of a number and thought that there had to be some funny business occurring, of some sort, but I don’t think that’s the case at all, and, perversely, I think that’s worse. I think all parties were above board in what they were doing, but the grim reality is that this truck – and, yes, likely many other cars but for this moment, we’re just talking about the Rivian R1T – is cripplingly expensive to repair.
There’s no way to spin this wreck as anything but a minor rear-ending. This is the kind of thing that happens many, many times across America every single day, and it looks like if you have a Rivian that gets hit in the rear, it’s very likely going to be expensive as hell to fix. Perhaps not $40,000 like this specific case, but still a hell of a lot.
I suspect that most Rivian owners carry comprehensive insurance, so they’re not paying out amounts like $20,000 to $40,000 out of pocket, but someone’s insurance company is, and unless there’s been some radical re-thinking in the insurance industry, they’re not charities, so those costs will eventually come back to the consumer via increased premiums.
What Is IIHS Doing About This?
What I don’t understand is why the insurance industry isn’t more agitated about this; back in the 1970s, they were so fed up that they helped push the NHTSA to implement the more stringent 5 mph bumper standards that were required in 1974 and phased out in the 1980s Reagan-era of de-regulation.
I reached out to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) to ask these questions, and got this response:
I don’t have any insight on why this repair would cost so much, but HLDI does track insurance losses by make and model and performs other analyses of insurance data to understand if certain vehicles are more expensive to repair. If this is more than a one-off occurrence, these repair costs will start to appear in the data. It’s something that we’ll keep a close eye on.
We have done some more general analyses of electric vehicles (not including Rivians) to see if there are differences in insurance loss patterns. What we’ve seen is that EVs tend to have lower frequencies of insurance claims (EVs are also driven less, so we adjust these numbers for milage). When claims are filed, we initially saw that the claim severities (the amount being paid per claim) were a bit higher, but those severities have come down over time and are more in line now with conventional vehicles. This could be due to body shops becoming more familiar with the repairs or cost of parts coming down.
IIHS does not currently run any sort of bumper testing, so there’s nothing in our crash test programs that would capture this issue. The Rivian R1Ts that we have crash tested are not repairable. I’m not aware of any current push to implement new bumper standards.
Then I pushed a bit more, to try and find why the IIHS was no longer doing those “bumper bash” tests like they used to, where they’d smash bumpers and record the costs of repair, like these tests, which you may remember:
IIHS responded, writing:
IIHS has limited resources to perform testing, so we shifted away from bumper testing to focus instead on new higher-speed crash test modes and evaluations of crash avoidance technology. While bumper testing can push automakers to make improvements from a damageability standpoint, it makes more sense for us to push changes that will also prevent injuries and save lives.
It’s hard to argue with saving lives and preventing injuries, of course, but while we’re living, uninjured, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that minor wrecks don’t end up being staggeringly expensive to repair. Cars and trucks can be designed to be safe and more forgiving in crashes, and designed with repairability in mind. The trend across the industry currently doesn’t seem to care much about how expensive cars are to repair, and this is going to be a growing problem as these cars age and get sold used and small shops will not be able to repair them effectively.
There May Be Nothing Stopping This From Becoming The Norm
It’s potentially wasteful and offers no benefit to the consumer. Remember, new manufacturing techniques are about to become a lot more common as automakers switch from engines to battery packs and look for novel ways to cut costs. Even Tesla says it’s about to totally reset how manufacturing works with its new “unboxed” system. I’m not saying that repairing a car built that way could be more costly, only noting that we’re in a different world these days.
If anything, stories like this one, with vomit-inducing repair costs should be less about Rivian specifically or Tesla or Volvo or Audi or any number of other modern carmakers, all of whom can have wildly costly repairs, but instead should be a wake-up call to consumers that, once again, the car industry isn’t really your friend.
I know most gearheads aren’t fond of the huge, diving-board 5 mph bumpers of the 1970s and 1980s, but for the most part, they did work. Minor accidents should have minor financial consequences; a lot of the joy of driving is sucked away when you realize you’re in a massive, alarmingly fragile machine that is financially crippling to repair should you make even a small mistake. I drove my 1989 Ford F-150 into a ditch not long ago, and, aside from outing myself as an idiot on the internet, suffered no significant damage to the truck, because that truck was designed with some degree of forgiveness. Sure, it’s a rock tied to a stick compared to a Rivian, but if a Lexus rear-ends me in that, it doesn’t cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix. It might cost tens of dollars, if it’s even worth fixing at all.
As car buyers, we need to make our needs known. We need to consider the models of the Right to Repair movement, and try and hold automakers accountable for building vehicles that aren’t devastating to repair, that aren’t built for disposability, because in the end, we’re the ones that end up paying.
If we want to have cars that don’t cost as much as buying new other entire cars to fix, we need to make those demands clear.