Could your car keep you safe from COVID-19?
The novel coronavirus has created an opportunity for businesses that purport to offer high-end products with enhanced protections against infection — from $250 face masks to $20,000 private jet flights and $200,000 home ventilation systems.
Luxury car makers could be the next to capitalize.
At a time when there's more focus than ever on what people are breathing in — read: a deadly virus, wildfire smoke — well-heeled buyers could be enticed by cars with advanced air filtration systems and other devices designed to protect against a variety of dangerous particulates, including some pathogens.
Chinese automaker Geely Auto, whose parent company owns high-end brands Volvo and Lotus, announced in February that in response to the coronavirus, its forthcoming Icon electric SUV would feature an N95-certified air purification system that could "isolate and eliminate harmful elements in the cabin air" including viruses. The same month, Geely said it would invest about $54 million to build "healthier cars" with "comprehensive virus protection."
Volvo and Lincoln are rolling out advanced air filtration systems for 2021 models. They use sensors to identify tiny particles and enhanced filters to clean the air that enters a car's cabin, a version of technologies that Tesla has offered since 2015. While those systems are not being touted by the manufacturers as protection measures against COVID-19, that doesn't mean anxious — and flush — car buyers won't pay for any add-on that might make their trip to the country club for socially distanced brunch at least feel a bit safer.
"As a product, of course it has viability," said Mike Ramsey, automotive analyst at Gartner Inc. "Luxury car makers are trying to cook up new ways to differentiate the product from vehicles that are largely the same but much cheaper."
The coronavirus is ordinarily spread through respiratory droplets passed among people in close contact, more often than not indoors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Contracting the virus from driving a car through contaminated air seems an edge case, to say the least.
A far more likely means of catching the virus inside a car would come from traveling with an infected passenger.
No automobile cabin air filter can prevent one passenger from transmitting a virus to another — a fact endlessly repeated in the media maelstrom that followed President Trump's controversial motorcade drive-by Oct. 4 while he was fighting COVID-19. Doctors say the best bet is to travel only with people you're reasonably sure do not have the virus.
Although Geely's February announcement led at least one news outlet to declare the company would be making a "virus-proof car," other publications questioned the validity of the company's claims, and, more broadly, some experts are skeptical that in-car filtration systems can protect against COVID-19.
"The goal of reliably filtering coronavirus from a vehicle cabin has myriad challenges," warned an article published by the Society of Automotive Engineers International trade association, which enumerated several technical challenges. "There's no silver bullet."
Geely, whose vehicles are not sold in the U.S., declined an interview request. In response to a question sent via email about the ability of its system to protect against the virus, a company spokesperson replied with a statement that touted its commitment to using in-car materials that "prevent the spread of germs" and predicted increased demand for "clean vehicles" with systems that can "remove bacteria."
When it comes to filtering out coronavirus particles, the issue hangs in part on their size and the abilities of the system in place. For example, HEPA filters — the type used in Tesla's system — are designed to block particles of a specific size, with different efficiency for those that are smaller or larger. Most are certified to block 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 micron in diameter, and can effectively capture smaller ones too, the Environmental Protection Agency has said. According to various reports, the virus particles range from about 0.06 to 0.125 micron in diameter.
Whereas Tesla's system uses HEPA filtration, those offered by Volvo and Lincoln do not.
Microbiologist Gary Kobinger, who is heading a team of 10 or so virologists and immunologists working at Laval University in Canada to create a COVID-19 vaccine, said it is possible for an in-car system to block the coronavirus, provided the vehicle is outfitted with a HEPA filter and "all the air that goes into the car goes through" it. But, he wondered, "What is the quality of the filter they are using?"
"It gets complicated quickly," said Kobinger, who was a lead developer of the Ebola vaccine that received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in 2019.
Technical challenges notwithstanding, automakers are introducing new systems to regulate cabin air quality, betting that consumers are now paying more attention to the issue.
On Sept. 15 — with wildfires roaring across the West Coast — Volvo announced the worldwide rollout of the Advanced Air Cleaner option, available in the U.S. on most 2021 Volvo models for $250. The system, aimed at various pollutants and allergens, is equipped with an ionizer that puts an electric charge on particles as small as 2.5 microns coming into the car, causing them to stick to the air filter. Sensors measure cabin air quality and post results on the car's center-stack screen.
Volvo "aims to bring the purity of Scandinavian air to customers around the world," according to a promotional video. The company has offered the technology on some of its cars in heavily polluted cities in China for several years.
But "it's not only China that has an air quality problem," said Anders Lofvendahl, head of cabin air quality for Volvo. "More than 90% of the human population are breathing bad air."
Volvo's ionizing filter system was developed with Blueair, a home and commercial building air filtration company in Stockholm. Using electrostatic filtration, the system, Lofvendahl said, takes up far less space and is better able to capture small particles than competing technologies.
Lincoln, the premium automobile brand at Ford Motor Co., likewise pioneered advanced cabin filtration systems in China. What the company calls Auto Air Refresh will make its debut in the 2021 Lincoln Aviator SUV as part of an option package called Elements Plus. Lincoln said it uses a laser sensor to identify particles as small as 2.5 microns, and an air filter to trap them. It's included in a $1,450 option package that includes heated seats and several other items.
Whereas Lincoln and Volvo are only now rolling out advanced air filtration systems, Tesla has included one on some models for years.
Tesla has offered what it calls a Bioweapon Defense Mode for several years in Models S and X, which can cost upward of $100,000 for fully optioned, high-performance versions. (The feature is not available in the Model 3, the company's least-expensive vehicle, with a starting price of $37,990.)
The defensive feature is advertised to stop bacteria such as anthrax, should an owner ever require it. In a Sept. 9 tweet, Musk described the filters in Models S and X as "hospital-grade," adding: "This has a big effect on health."
In 2016, when Tesla announced a successful test of its air filtration system, it mentioned viruses. The company said the system was tested in real-world environments such as "smelly marshes" and "major cities in China," adding: "We wanted to ensure that it captured fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants, as well as bacteria, viruses, pollen and mold spores."
Electric vehicle enthusiast websites Tesmanian and InsideEVs have said Bioweapon Defense Mode may protect passengers from COVID-19, yet skepticism remains. A 2015 report by technology news website Gizmodo included the perspective of several experts who said that Bioweapon Defense Mode could protect against some bacterial agents but was unlikely to be effective against many viruses.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.
HEPA filtration is finding a toehold in the automotive sector beyond carmakers' offerings. Third-party companies such as Bosch sell aftermarket HEPA filters that can be installed in most cars. However, they require perfect fit in order to work properly, which can be a challenge. Also, HEPA filters are more expensive than conventional ones, and require regular changing in order to be effective. Some experts say unless a car is properly sealed, a HEPA filter may not be better than a regular air filter.
Because the bigger risk with automobiles is the spread of the virus between passengers, there's an opportunity for companies offering products beyond those that filter outside air. Ramsey said that he wouldn't be surprised "to see ... UV light or ozone cleaning systems deployed more broadly." Such devices sanitize the air inside a vehicle's cabin, potentially protecting passengers from another infected rider. And this product segment already appears to be catching on in the country first struck by the pandemic: China.
Shanghai-based Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, which builds products for carmakers and mobility companies, introduced an ultraviolet sterilization system for vehicles in 2019 in response to the growth of ride-hailing services, which have wanted to assure customers that cars are clean. Called the Wellness Pod, the console is an "antimicrobial device" mounted inside a vehicle that emits UV light. In a statement, the company said that the Wellness Pod destroys "both bacteria and viruses to ensure a healthy environment," adding that "directly exposed surfaces experience up to 99.9% reduction in bacteria."
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Yanfeng has received "a significant uptick in interest from" automakers, Debra Ortisi, vice president of communications for Yanfeng, said in an email interview.
The Wellness Pod's effectiveness in eradicating pathogens including the flu and SARS previously was confirmed by a third-party laboratory, but its capabilities with regard to COVID-19 have not yet been ascertained, Ortisi said. Once Yanfeng is able to find a lab that can test for COVID-19, the company will move forward with such an effort, she said.
Yanfeng declined to disclose the price carmakers and others pay for the system.
Beyond the issue of the coronavirus, another recent cataclysm has brought attention to the quality of in-car air: the wildfires that have devastated California, Oregon and Washington.
"Air filtration has value, particularly for people with asthma or allergies, but now with all the fires on the West Coast, cars that have these filters are even more desirable," said Ramsey, the analyst.
Many air quality experts agree that properly installed car-based HEPA filtration systems offer protection from wood smoke particulate matter, which the Environmental Protection Agency says ranges in size from 0.4 to 0.7 micron.
Ed Avol, professor and chief of environmental health at USC Keck School of Medicine, said that in the fight against air pollution, in-vehicle HEPA filters "may be the next level of improvement."
But he said that existing passenger compartment air filters are "pretty good" — and there's an easy way to increase protection.
"If you roll up your windows and set it to recirculate," Avol said, "that will dramatically reduce the particles in the passenger compartment."
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