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Could your car keep you safe from COVID-19?

By Daniel Miller and Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

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.

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