By on April 23, 2020

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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23 Comments on “Pandemic to Influence Automotive Design; Here Come the Premium Air Filters...”

  • avatar
    R Henry

    “Automakers are already mulling the possibility of adding better air filtration systems as a selling point.”

    Tits on a boar hog. What are these drivers to do when then get out of these guilded cages?…hold their breath?

    Such silliness….

  • avatar

    Of course gimmicks to capitalize on the pandemic. I fully expect designer face masks will be along shortly

  • avatar

    I hope things return to normal soon.
    This China Plague is doing tremendous harm.

  • avatar

    Improved air filtration or just having air filtration is a great idea. I’ve spent way too many years travelling gravel roads and sucking lung fulls of dust every time I encounter a loaded logging truck or other vehicle. We put air filters on our engines, it makes sense to do the same for the passenger compartment.

    • 0 avatar

      Most modern cars have a cabin air filter.

      It’s usually accessed through the glove compartment.

      Changing the cabin air filter is a dealer handout. They charge $60-$100 for it. Unusually decline, and order it on Amazon for $10 and change it myself at a reasonable interval.

      • 0 avatar

        Some lower end configurations don’t, but the compartment is still there. Just buy the filter and stick it in. We did that on our 2010 Escape.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Wish it was a $10 part. In Canada to buy a ‘brand name’ cabin air filter for any of our vehicles cost from just over $20 to just under $35.

        Changing them as you noted is easy, after you have done it once.

        The best being our Kia Rondo, it actually has a tray that pulls out than you just place the filter into.

        Unlike the other vehicles where you have to slide the filter into the slot.

        Just another example of the thoughtful design and engineering that Kia actually put into that generation of Rondo.

        • 0 avatar

          Interesting to note is that GM put cabin filters in some basic stuff like our Buick Century. Open the cowl hatch under the hood and there it is. Easy peasy. Too bad what should be $5 is $35. I get annoyed by such gouging. Buy a Craftsman Shop vac for $115, yet one filter is $25. Shaving blades? Same thing. Hence the Braun electric shaver. I hate getting used by corporations. I guess others do as blades are locked up in almost every store and I am certainly not in a high crime area.

  • avatar

    A number of cars have had cabin air filters in the past 25 years but I’m amazed by the lack of maintenance. I just checked a 2000 Honda S2000 and it still had the original unit. I bought a 1996 Taurus wagon in 2006 with 225K miles which also was original. Needless to say airflow and odor improved considerably when changed.

    • 0 avatar

      The cabin air filters don’t get changed because dealers often scam customers by charging $60-$100 for a 2 minute job with a $10 part.

      Anyone with any sense gets into the habit of declining that service.

      But they are worth changing yourself. In my cars, the filter is accessed through the glove compartment and I would have never found it on my own — but YouTube can show you how to access it on a particular car.

      • 0 avatar

        Agreed regarding the dealer scam pricing. As you say, most are accessible from the glove box area. In the case of the Taurus and S2000, both were located under the hood in the cowl under a plastic panel.

  • avatar

    For pathogens you don’t need physical filtration. Expose the buggers to a hard hit of UV and, voila, they’re history.

    Of course it can be done with electrostatically (sp?) charged physical filtration media, but it must be changed regularly.

  • avatar

    Cabin air filters are a good idea especially for those who live in dusty parts of the world. However, they don’t need to meet the N95 standard. What’s next? Social distancing for automobiles? Ultraviolet from the sun makes the outdoors one of the healthiest places to be.

    As far as driving around with your windows down, that makes you the answer to a carjackers’s prayer. Ditto for road rage. Keeping your windows up and doors locked is enough to foil most of them. For the exceptions, the damage they do breaking in becomes the basis of your claim of self defense.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      How many carjackings take place where you live? Are there really enough to make it a justifiable fear? Or was Michael Moore right?

    • 0 avatar

      “As far as driving around with your windows down, that makes you the answer to a carjackers’s prayer. Ditto for road rage. Keeping your windows up and doors locked is enough to foil most of them. For the exceptions, the damage they do breaking in becomes the basis of your claim of self defense.”

      This is not a reasonable advice in the city where I live.

      Being this afraid of crime is a you-problem, at least here.

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      And (inherently antimicrobial) copper/brass/bronze external and internal door handles [for example]. Not solid – just add copper to your current metallization process.

  • avatar

    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…

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      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.

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