Kia argues the coronavirus pandemic will leave a mark on car design

Ronan Glon

Shared and connected, the toaster-shaped concepts paraded in front of CES attendees each year look like rolling germ incubators in a year marred by a global pandemic. Digitally hitching a ride with four or five perfect strangers suddenly seems like a good way to get sick, and one of Kia's top executives argued that, in the coming years, automakers will need to rethink the way they design car interiors to address the public's lingering fears.

"We're going to have talks with psychologists and anthropologists to really understand how the public's psyche is going to be in the future. There are things we've already been talking about: Can we have anti-viral coatings in our interiors? Can you use temperature or ultraviolet light to sanitize surfaces? These are things we will have to talk about rather soon," affirmed Karim Habib, Kia's design chief, during an interview with British magazine Car.

He brought up the possibility of developing new, germ-repellent materials Kia could use to manufacture door handles, gear selectors, steering wheels, and other common touch points. And, he called into question the various car-sharing programs some companies have poured millions of dollars into in recent years.

"What does this mean for cars? I think we'll have to wait and see. Right now, we are trying to expand our understanding of what this might mean, not only for the types of vehicles we drive, but also how to design vehicles for shared mobility, or not, as the case may be," he explained.

Sister company Hyundai is trying to answer the same questions. It's experimenting with ways to beam ultraviolet rays from the dome light to kill viruses in car interiors. COVID-19 comes to mind, but this technology can -- in theory -- zap other infectious agents. The issue, as we reported, is that UV light harms human skin, so it would only have to be blasted into the cabin when no one is in the car. There's no word on when Hyundai will put this technology in a car, or whether it will reach production, but it's already used globally in the medical sector.

Ford is taking a different approach to killing germs. It released software that bakes viruses by heating the cabin to about 133 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. This feature is only available on the Explorer-based Police Interceptor Utility as of writing, though the company plans to add it to other models sooner or later.

"So, yes: COVID-19 will very much influence the way we design our cars in the future," Habib concluded.

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