Digital technology doesn't only save time and money for insurance companies, it also benefits bodyshops and car owners. Amanda Swinburn reports on the all-round advantages of image assessing.

Digital technology, or image assessing, is revolutionising the motor repair process. Major insurers are increasingly demanding that bodyshops have digital cameras in place, to allow them to transmit images of damaged vehicles via the internet, without having to send an engineer to the site.

Technology for digital assessing has improved dramatically. The first system, BT Info-motion was launched in 1996 by British Telecom and was about the size of a refrigerator. New systems are the size of a small box which can be fitted on the repairer's wall.

From the insurer's point of view, this technology offers impressive cost savings.

But for the bodyshop, it is a considerable investment - it cost £20,000 when the technology first became available, and will set you back from around £7,000 today.

There are two types of camera which can be used - the digital camera, which supplies stills of the vehicle, or the more costly version, which offers moving images via a tiny camera that can be attached to the repairer's lapel.

Sales manager of Kerridge Videos, Chris Elvin, says although the systems are not a cheap solution for repairers, there is a grudging acceptance of the need for the technology.

"Repairers can see we are trying to bring costs down and the prices have certainly dropped dramatically since the systems were first launched," he says.

Insurers that are trying to bring a return to profitability in their motor business benefit from numerous advantages.

"There is a time and cost saving for the insurer," says Elvin. "The camera provides a `second opinion' - the engineer is linked by audio and video to the assessor, who can give immediate authorisation."

Video cameras also mean that if further problems are found with a vehicle, they can be relayed quickly without an engineer having to make return visits.

In the next two or three years, Elvin predicts repairers will be able to send images to insurers via their mobile phones.

"If the telecoms industry can get a broad band on mobile phones, a web-type camera can be used, with an earpiece and a palm top computer linked to a mobile phone," he says.

MMA Insurance has been using image-assessing technology since 1996 and more than 80% of private car claims are dealt with in this way. According to MMA's chief motor engineer, Gary Brench, the company's operating costs are among the lowest in the market.

MMA prefers to use still images as opposed to moving ones, as they allow the garage to work more flexibly, rather than imposing strict times when the images have to be viewed live by the repairer and the insurer's engineer.

"However, the system works best where we have a strong partnership and a proven track record with our repairer partner," he says.

Stephen Crowe of Groupama Insurances agrees. "The insurer has to be confident that the images accurately display the damage and support the accompanying quotation," he says.

Royal & Sunalliance (R&SA) also requires that the majority of its repairers have Audatex software, which offers digital stills.

According to R&SA's national repair manager, Derek Moore, the cameras speed up the repair process significantly.

"Ordinarily, we would have to diary a call-in by one of our engineers, who may not arrive for two or three days sometimes," he says.

Ipswich-based accident management firm Town and Country Assistance operates its accident repair through 142 bodyshops nationwide. Two years ago, the company decided to speed up the accident management process by arranging for bodyshops to supply digital images of damage to vehicles. Over the following six months, all the bodyshops acquired a digital camera, together with a personal computer with internet access.

Chief engineer at Town and Country, Tim Griffiths, says: "Digital cameras speed up the process of an agreement with the insurance company and, hence, the repair," he says.

"As a result, they enable the bodyshop to get its courtesy vehicle back much more quickly and less downtime on the vehicle means a major saving in money.

"A speeded-up insurance process also means they can take on more work, which is more profitable."

But it is not only the repairer who benefits, he adds. Both the owner of the car and the insurance company benefit from a more streamlined process.