Pandemic to Influence Automotive Design; Here Come the Premium Air Filters

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
pandemic to influence automotive design here come the premium air filters

With the pandemic altering daily life for just about everyone alive, the slogan “the new normal” has exploded into popular parlance. Everything has changed and nothing, allegedly, will ever be the same. Governments are issuing stringent lockdown orders the likes of which haven’t been seen in our lifetimes, companies are initiating aggressive new health protocols, and gigantic tech firms are deciding what constitutes harmful information online as they act as censors for the public good. Worst of all, there’s little reason to drive anywhere — unless you’re planning on bugging out to live in the woods.

Whatever form society takes after the pandemic subsides, those eerily empty roads probably won’t be among the lingering changes. People are already chomping at the bit to get out there and do something, meaning most folks will return to their road-going ways. Which doesn’t mean COVID-19 won’t have an influence on future designs. Automakers are already mulling the possibility of adding better air filtration systems as a selling point.

Luxury brands have already run with the idea by adding built-in air fresheners, ionizing systems, or superior filtration hardware. In places like China, where air quality is notoriously poor in urban centers, we’ve seen Volvo/Zhejiang Geely Holding run with this concept for years. More mainstream brands have done the same in the Asian market, often offering enhanced air filtration as an optional extra. On high-end luxury models, they’re practically obligatory — regardless of market.

According to Automotive News, manufacturers are considering exporting that type of content globally, now that COVID-19 is in the midst of its world tour. The outlet spoke with several staffers tasked with automotive design, mainly from premium nameplates, and they all see an opportunity to tweak the formula a bit.

“The pandemic will change our perception of how we experience safety and luxury in the future,” explained Daimler’s chief design officer Gorden Wagener. “This can be a challenging but an exciting time.”

While interior air quality is something the industry has worked on for decades, no automaker has taken it to a submicroscopic level for mainstream product. It isn’t obvious that’s what they’re hoping to do moving forward, however. A mobile hazmat suit sounds like it would be expensive to produce and rather ineffective, unless it could test the air around it to indicate when it was safe to open the door. Otherwise you’ll just be exposed to whatever atmospheric horrors await you on the other side.

From Automotive News:

“We are working toward the idea that the car could actually take bad things out of the air, almost clean the air,” Wagener said. “It’s an opportunity to address the sustainability issue that we have already been considering.”

Judging from past history at Mercedes and its competitors, the system would be similar to existing processes that work to remove airborne allergens like car fumes — but would also work on a broader level than just the car itself, effectively and significantly cleaning the air immediately surrounding the exterior of the vehicle.

Mercedes has been exploring such options for decades: In 1989, the Mercedes Benz SL roadster was the first serial production model to come with a standard cabin air filter. By 2017, Mercedes was the first car manufacturer to achieve the asthma- and allergy-friendly certification for its interior cabin air filters from Allergy Standards Ltd. and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).

As a city-dwelling nerd, your author enjoys a good filtration system. While widows down is the preferred mode of travel on most fair-weather days, a clever HVAC system makes allergy season more livable and really cuts down on the baked-garbage smell of city living in August. That said, the ability to reliably filtering out pathogens is a lot expect from the next generation of luxury cars. Instead, we’ll probably end up with autos boasting of superior air filtration in regard to airborne pollutants like pollen. A number of automakers have already made meaningful headway on this front. Bold as ever, Tesla has what it calls a “Bioweapon Defense Mode” that uses a HEPA filtration system it claims can remove bacteria from the air surrounding the vehicle.

The other predicted change to automotive design involves a new focus on mental health. Alister Whelan, creative director for interior design at Jaguar Land Rover, said the psychic trauma of a historic pandemic will mean a whole new level of concern for customers. She believes drivers will come to expect “efficiency and total isolation — for their own safety.”

“My young designers keep reminding me that safety isn’t always about size — people will want privacy,” she said.

Designers implied tomorrow’s vehicles would have whisper-quiet interiors (not a new idea) and incognito exteriors aimed at avoiding attention. While tastefully understated bodywork is always desirable, this concept sounds like an good way for designers to avoid being creative. Though it probably takes some amount of skill to design a forgettable car on purpose. Automotive News even discussed the prospect of cloaking devices that would make it possible to “hide the car from governmental officials or thugs, during security breaches on public roads, or help avoid an outright attack.”

Jesus, what kind of future do they think we’re going to be living in?

As automakers work on enhanced driver privacy, most of their invisibility initiatives involve finding ways to see through today’s disgustingly plump A-pillars or providing better visibility while hauling a trailer. Making your car disappear is pure fantasy, especially as the industry ramps up data monitoring on connected vehicles. Privacy stops once it can be digitized and sold to the highest bidder, and it will make the industry a lot more money than selling extravagant HVAC systems.

Fortunately for automakers, the pair aren’t mutually exclusive.

[Image: Daimler]

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4 of 23 comments
  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Apr 23, 2020

    Good news: Our nice shiny new crossover will filter the air inside your vehicle. Bad news: Our nice shiny new crossover will pump your lungs full of VOC's ("new car smell"). If I were an enterprising product planner, I would explore ozone generation systems which could disinfect the interior of the unoccupied vehicle on a weekly basis (for example). Estimated piece cost ~$30.

  • Thelaine Thelaine on Apr 23, 2020

    Forget cars, when the hell are they going to do this on airplanes, along with some real emphasis on cleaning? And yes, I would definitely pay more to fly with an airline company which made a point of not being a cylindrical petri dish. Assuming we still have airline companies...

    • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Apr 23, 2020

      Good point. I keep getting emails from the airlines (presumably the ones I have apps for) telling me how much they care for me by adding more cleaning to their regimen. One of them even cites how much cabin air is recirculated; IIRC it's like 15%. But with nobody flying, it doesn't matter.

  • Wjtinfwb Over the years I've owned 3, one LH (a Concorde) a Gen 1 300 and a Gen 2 300C "John Varvatos". The Concorde was a very nice car for the time with immense room inside and decent power from the DOHC 3.5L. But quality was awful, it spent more time in the shop than the driveway. It gave way to a Gen 1 300, OK but the V6 was underwhelming in this car compared to the Concorde but did it's job. The Gen 1's letdown was the awful interior with acres of plastic, leather that did it's best imitation of vinyl and a featureless dashboard that looked lifted from a cheaper car. My last one was a '14 300C John Varvatos with the Pentastar. Great car, sufficient power and exceptional highway mileage. The interior was much better than the original as well. It was felled by a defective instrument cluster that took over 90 days to fix and was ultimately lemon law' d back to FCA. I'd love one of the 392 powered final edition 300s but understand they're already sold out and if I had an extra 60k available, would likely choose a CPO BMW 540i for comparable money.
  • Dukeisduke Thanks Cary. Folks need to make sure they buy the correct antifreeze, since there are some many OEM-specific ones out there (Dex-Cool, Ford gold, Toyota red and pink, etc.).And sorry to hear about your family situation - my wife and I have been dealing with her 88-yo mom, moving her into independent senior living, selling her house, etc. It's a lot to deal with.
  • FreedMike Always lusted after that first-gen 300 - particularly the "Heritage Edition," which had special 300 badging and a translucent plastic steering wheel (ala the '50s and '60s "letter cars").
  • Dave M. Although the effective takeover by Daimler is pooped upon, this is one they got right. I wasn't a fan of the LHs, mostly due to reported mechanical, NVH and build quality issues, but I though Chrysler hit it out of the park with the LXs. The other hyped release that year was the Ford Five Hundred, which, while a well-built car with superior interior space, couldn't hold a candle to the 300.
  • Art Vandelay I always liked those last FWD 300's. Been ages since I've seen one on the road though. Lots of time in the RWD ones as rentals. No complaints whatsoever.