DETROIT — Automakers and suppliers around the world are investigating ways to virus-proof their vehicles to win customers in a post-COVID-19 market.
Ideas under consideration include blasting car interiors with ultraviolet light, using foggers to spray disinfectants, upgraded air filtration systems and antimicrobial materials.
A third of vehicle shoppers recently told Cox Automotive they are more likely to consider air quality features for their next vehicle than before COVID-19.
“Safety is definitely top of mind for car shoppers,” said Vanesa Ton, Cox senior industry intelligence manager. “Not only are they expecting sanitization and social distancing protocols in place at the dealerships, they also want features in their cars to protect them such as air quality/purifier options.”
In a sweeping five-country survey, 80% of respondents in the U.S., China, Japan, Germany and Italy told consultant IHS Markit they’d be willing to pay for systems to disinfect their vehicles.
“There’s customer sentiment to implement these features,” IHS supplier technology expert David Trippany said. “People want their vehicles to sterilize themselves.”
A Michigan tech company has begun making UVC lights to sterilize the inside of ambulances, police cars and other emergency vehicles. UVA light is a component of the natural sunlight we’re exposed to daily. Shorter wavelength UVC is more toxic, but normally screened out by the Earth’s atmosphere. It can be produced by artificial lights and arc welders.
“We’ve been working on UVC light to clean and disinfect vehicles for some time,” said John Major, director of marketing for GHSP in Grand Haven, Michigan.
GHSP’s grenlite system is in use on vehicles in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Boston; and in North Carolina.
“COVID-19 has moved this to the forefront,” said Todd Fletemier, technology vice president of interior supplier Faurecia. “We must combine the quick development and evaluation processes we’ve learned from the medical community with the auto industry’s needs for safety and durability.”
There’s a need for the systems in mass transit and ride-hailing vehicles. Demand for personal vehicles isn’t clear, but automakers are watching.
Clearing the air
“Recent events have directed us to investigate additional technologies for improving cabin air for our heating and air conditioning systems. We’re also looking at antimicrobial materials and easily cleanable surfaces for our interiors,” a Fiat Chrysler spokesperson said.
“COVID-19 will prompt more focus on air filtration and, perhaps, on more segregated climate zones in the cockpit, features there was already movement toward. But more extreme measures, like antibacterial touch surfaces, will be poorly rewarded in the long term if they mean less visually attractive or durable interiors,” said Eric Noble, of product development consultant The Carlab.
Using UV light to sterilize
UV light can’t be used when people are in the vehicle, but its sterilizing effect is cumulative, meaning “you don’t have to kill 100% at once,” Major said. “Short bursts every time the vehicle is empty work. You do a full cleaning between shifts or at the end of the day and maintain it with short doses throughout the day.”
The lights can be integrated into headliners or existing lighting systems, he said. Irradiating air in the climate control system’s ducts is another possibility.
Motion sensors and thermometers can determine the vehicle is empty and ready for irradiation, said Fletemier, of Faurecia, which is looking at UVA and C sterilization.
Fogging interiors with disinfectant
Fogging systems that spray hydrogen peroxide or another disinfectant into the cabin air are another candidate, and another system that would require occupant detection for safety, Fletemier said.
Supplier Magna is evaluating an ozone-generating system it used to disinfect personal protective equipment for automotive use.
“We hope to leverage this Magna technology to sanitize ride-sharing vehicles and other future mobility applications,” Scott Mitchell, Magna’s global director of new technology and innovation, told the SAE International’s publication Autonomous Vehicle Engineering.
“It’s still too early to say how we’d go about implementing a sanitizing method for a vehicle interior; we have lots of options on the table that are under review,” Mitchell said.
Supplier Lear makes antimicrobial leather and fabrics that resist viruses, bacteria, mold and fungus. “We are seeing increased interest from our customers on surface materials that repel microorganisms,” Lear chief technology officer John Absmeier said.
Antimicrobial treatments don’t necessarily remain effective as long as most vehicles stay in use, though. Buyers should find out how long the protection they pay for will last, if it can be renewed, and how much that costs.
Digital payments for gas, food and electric charging can eliminate physical contact with credit card readers and payment counters other customers have touched. Lear’s Xevo Market and General Motors’ Marketplace allow you to pay for goods remotely.
General Motors has also created a program for its dealers to clean their facilities and vehicles to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.
“We know that our customers’ expectations have changed and that more will need to be done to meet those expectations,” said Barry Engle, president of GM North America. “Our engineering, service and sales teams have worked closely with our dealer network to develop a program that follows best practices regarding the delivery of new, used or serviced vehicles.”