Car OEMs such as Ford are creating custom in-car solutions to reduce the risk of transmission.
Car OEMs such as Ford are creating custom in-car solutions to reduce the risk of transmission.
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OEMs Car OEMs utilize cleaning tech to prepare for a post-pandemic future

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrence / Jochen Schwab

Cleanliness has never been more critical than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Car OEMs such as Ford are creating custom in-car solutions to reduce the risk of transmission, and we can expect cars in production to come with new functionalities in response to the virus.

There have been plenty of attempts to increase safety into cars - airbags were first introduced commercially in the 1950s and airbags in the 1970s. But today's car manufacturer is facing a different kind of health challenge not directly caused by the movement of the vehicle - to reduce the risk of the transmission of COVID-19.

According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 can spread between people through small droplets from the nose or mouth, which are expelled when a person with COVID-19 coughs, sneezes or speaks. People can catch COVID-19 if they breathe in these droplets from a person infected with the virus. This is why it is important to stay at least 1 meter) away from others. In the case of a vehicle, the virus can be spread through touching surfaces where the virus is present. Many surfaces internally and externally require regular cleaning to help reduce the spread of the disease. These include hard seats, armrests, door handles, seat belt buckles, light and air controls, doors and windows, and grab handles and frequently touched electronic surfaces, such as tablets or touch screens according to the CDC.

It follows that OEMs are looking for ways to embed safety within vehicles. Ford has designed a new heated software enhancement to pilot with its Police Interceptor Utility – available immediately on all 2013-19 Police Interceptor Utility vehicles in the United States, Canada and other countries around the world.

Bake off the virus

The solution is simple: Bake the vehicle's interior until viruses inside are inactivated. Using Police Interceptor Utility's own powertrain and climate control systems, the software solution enables vehicles to elevate passenger compartment temperatures beyond 133 degrees Fahrenheit (56.1 Celcius) for 15 minutes – as hot as the Death Valley desert - long enough to help disinfect vehicle touchpoints. This heated process can be used by law enforcement regularly to help sanitize vehicles when officers are not inside.

Once activated, the vehicle's powertrain and climate control systems work together automatically to elevate passenger compartment temperatures. The software warms up the engine to an elevated level, and both heat and fan settings operate on high. The software automatically monitors interior temperatures until the entire passenger compartment hits the optimal level, then that temperature is maintained for 15 minutes.

To research the effectiveness of this sanitization method, Ford worked closely with The Ohio State University. Laboratory supervisors Jeff Jahnes and Jesse Kwiek shared:

"Our studies with Ford Motor Company indicate that exposing coronaviruses to temperatures of 56 degrees Celsius, or 132.8 degrees Fahrenheit, for 15 minutes reduces the viral concentration by greater than 99 percent on interior surfaces and materials used inside Police Interceptor Utility vehicles,"

Law enforcement will have multiple ways to monitor progress. Hazard lights and taillights will flash in a pre-set pattern to notify when the process has begun, then will change at the end to signal completion. The vehicle's instrument cluster will also indicate progress. A cool-down process brings the temperature down from its highest points.

Combined with other cleaning methods, the elevated air temperature can help reach areas that may be missed by manual disinfecting procedures. Heat can seep into crevices and hard-to-reach areas, helping reduce the impact of human error in applying chemical disinfectants.

Ford conducted operational software trials in vehicles owned by the New York City Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department, and other states.

For 2016-19 police vehicles, the heated software process can be activated by a smart sequence of commands that involves pressing cruise control buttons in a predefined order. For 2013-15 vehicles, this mode can be activated and carried out through an external tool that connects to the onboard diagnostics port.

Car cleaning robots?

Although solutions such as Ford's only clean the inside of the car (and you hope that there's no software malfunction that increases the temperature erroneously while inhabited), it's easy to envision an increase in OEMs licensing cleaning products suitable for their brand of cars' specific surfaces.

There's also electrostatic spray technology, used for many decades in painting and agriculture. Electrostatic sprayers use positive and negative charges to make disinfecting solutions electromagnetically stick to targeted surfaces. The charge created by the electrostatic sprayer makes the disinfectant wrap around and cling to the entire surface.

It's also foreseeable that we'll see an increase in robotic car cleaning technology. Automation in car washing services is nothing new, but we can expect advances in sanitation techniques and materials, and in the future, scenarios where cars automatically drive themselves to the carwash after use.

What will vehicles of the future look like post-pandemic?

It's hard to imagine this time last year that a software update could be rolled out to help stem a deadly airborne virus. It raises the question of what kinds of infrastructure OEMs will embed in their future vehicles in anticipation of consumer demand. It would be hardly surprising to see vehicles with sealed passenger and driver compartments, not unlike those we've already seen retrofitted into taxisandbuses.

Other initiatives could include advanced air filtration, higher adoption of touch-free functionalities and commands, and embedded fillable bottles or hand sanitizer, which is automatically reordered once sensors detect low quantity.

UVEYE has developed contact-free, emergency-vehicle inspection systems.
UVEYE has developed contact-free, emergency-vehicle inspection systems.

In Israel, UVEYE has developed contact-free, emergency-vehicle inspection systems. It uses infrared thermal-imaging technology to detect body temperatures from a distance of several meters or more. It could help health-care professionals rapidly identify individuals who might require additional COVID-19 testing or treatment.

The company has offered to equip health-related fleet operators with vehicle-inspection equipment on a not-for-profit basis during the current COVID-19 crisis. There's already been a range of initiatives to embed cars with health tracking sensors. Thus, temperature checking seems like easy integration, especially if integrated with real-time news of infection hotspots. Will future autonomous cars upon detecting a high temperature disable the vehicle (a reroute the vehicle for cleaning) or drive the occupant to a hospital? Both a foreseeable