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.”

Adapting technology

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, Grand Haven.

GHSP’s grēnlite system is in use on vehicles in Grand Rapids 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 definite 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.

Antimicrobials

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

No-touch technology

Digital payments for gas, food and electric charging can eliminate physical contact with credit card readers and payment counters other customs 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 Center for Disease Control 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.”

-Mark Phelan/Detroit Free Press

DID YOU KNOW

Italian government might back big loans to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has confirmed that it is in talks with the Italian government that could give it access to billions of dollars worth of additional credit as it seeks to weather the COVID-19 financial storm.

The company would be required to use the funds, up to $6.8 billion (6.3 billion euros), for operations in Italy. If finalized, the automaker would obtain a loan guarantee from SACE, Italy’s Export Credit Agency, which would allow it to borrow the funds as part of a three-year credit facility through Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s largest banking group, FCA said in a news release.

Because the funds would be limited to Italian operations, they would be “intended to provide further support to some 10,000 small and medium enterprises in the automotive supply chain in Italy following the reopening of the company’s Italian plants beginning at the end of April,” the release said.

In calling itself and its suppliers pivotal to the restart of Italian industry, the company noted that the automotive sector is equal to about 6.2% of Italian gross domestic product and 7% of the country’s manufacturing employment.

This marks the latest effort by FCA to gain access to credit as the coronavirus pandemic has upended the global economy. The company, which reported a $1.9 billion (1.7 billion euro) loss in the first quarter of the year, announced in late April it had already drawn down billions of dollars in credit.

On May 13, FCA and its planned merger partner Peugeot-maker PSA Group announced they would not issue expected dividend distributions from both companies in light of the pandemic.

FCA, of course, is not alone in efforts to shore up its finances. Ford and General Motors, for instance, have also made substantial moves to borrow and stockpile cash as the crisis has unfolded.

-Eric D. Lawrence/Detroit Free Press

CAR FACT

Porsche produced several designs for heavy tanks during World War II, losing out to Henschel & Son in both contracts that ultimately led to the Tiger I and the Tiger II. However, the chassis Porsche designed for the Tiger I was used as the base for the Elefant tank destroyer. Porsche also developed the Maus super-heavy tank in the closing stages of the war, producing two prototypes.

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