The Thousand Dollar Windshield

Most people don’t know this — yet — but replacing a new car’s windshield can cost as much as a new transmission used to cost.

Sometimes, more.

Because it’s not just glass you’re replacing.

Embedded in the glass — part of the “assembly” is safety technology. It’s usually part of the rearview mirror, technically, but that’s now part of the windshield assembly in more and more new cars.

It’s no longer the simple and generic/universal ‘glue-it-in-place’ rearview mirror cars used to have.

The rearview mirror was almost an afterthought.

The rest of the assembly, that huge chunk of plastic that’s glued to the glass, now contains sensors and cameras, integral to safety systems such as Lane Keep Assist, Automated Emergency Braking, and so on. Some keep track of what’s happening outside the car, and some (like Subaru’s EyeSight system) also keep track of what’s going on inside the car.

Some do both.

In some cars, the rearview mirror doubles as a closed-circuit camera.

But the relevant thing is that the windshield in a modern car is no longer just a sheet of glass but an integrated system with proprietary technology baked into it.

The windshield/rearview mirror makes the system much more expensive to manufacture than the old-school sheet of just glass and effectively impossible for generic/aftermarket companies to make copies of any combination.

Aftermarket companies could make the glass, of course. But they can’t make the tech. Not legally, anyhow. Even if that weren’t an issue, the economics would be. The tech has become so car-specific that mass reproduction of a given part (this goes beyond windshields) often doesn’t make economic sense.

In the past, one size did fit all, or at least, many did when it came to automotive glass as well as many other parts. It was typical for a given make/model of car to remain pretty much the same for at least five or six years, and that meant a given sheet of glass (as well as other parts) fit tens of thousands of copies of a given make/model of car built over that span of years.

This system reduced the cost of those parts because the manufacturer, whether original equipment or aftermarket, could recoup manufacturing costs on less per sale because more parts could be sold—economies of scale.

You could also find a part that fit used at a junkyard. So long as it physically bolted up, you were good to go. Usually for much less than the cost of a new part, whether OEM or aftermarket.

But today’s car has a much shorter shelf-life; the usual interval between a significant makeover is down to about three or four years on average, and it is now common for major incremental changes to be made year-to-year.

And cars are much more make/model and year-specific now. Trim and combination of options-specific, too.

Things no longer interchange as easily.

Your 2018 car may look like the 2016 version, but your version came with a different windshield—one that incorporates safety tech or other systems that weren’t yet on the menu back in ’16.

The windshield for a 2016 (or from one, at the junkyard) might physically fit, but it won’t work because the electronics are different.

The replacement windshield for the 2016 costs around $200; $150 for the functionally identical aftermarket/generic replacement. The same glass for the 2018 costs twice as much because it’s no longer just the glass and because there is no generic/aftermarket option.

That stone chip just got a lot more expensive.

Your insurance, too—both the premium and the deductible. People are beginning to notice, especially after they file that first claim for a replacement windshield. They are fall-to-their-knees grateful when they find out that’s only going to cost them $100 (for the deductible) to get that $1,000 windshield.

A month later, though, they get the new bill, the “adjusted” premium (and deductible) which in defense of the insurance mafia reflects a legitimate cost.

What’s not legitimate is that we can’t opt-out of it either.

We’re not allowed to buy new cars without the embedded-in-the-glass (and everywhere else) safety tech, which has either been formally mandated by the government or functionally mandated by the car companies—most of which won’t sell you a car with just a windshield and just a rearview mirror anymore.

Just as automakers won’t generally sell you a car without at least six air bags, even though the government only mandates two.

They say it’s for your safety, of course. But it doesn’t hurt them—that all this safety ups the price you’re effectively forced to pay for the car and to fix the car.

You are forced to fix a cracked windshield because it won’t pass a safety inspection. Without a safety sticker on the windshield, you’re fair game for a traffic stop. You also need that safety sticker to insure the car, a legal requirement.

What was it George Jetson used to say? “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!”


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2 Responses to “The Thousand Dollar Windshield”

  1. David Holzman says:

    Interesting story–everything gets more expensive whether you like it or not.

    I have always thought that for crash protection, the gov’t should have mandated performance standards rather than airbags. That way, one could have ordered a car with racing type harnesses, probably greatly reducing the cost of replacement after a crash.

    • John Carr says:

      An old memory tells me the DOT offered car makers the option of airbags or deep padding on the dash. For a while the government wanted to back off airbag standards but a lawsuit blocked that retreat.