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Can car air filters protect you from coronavirus?

Motoring Research logo Motoring Research 5/4/2020 Tim Pitt
a woman sitting in a car: Driving with a mask on © Provided by Motoring Research Driving with a mask on

Chinese carmaker Geely recently unveiled its new Icon SUV. Its headline feature is an ability to ‘isolate and eliminate harmful elements in the cabin air, including bacteria and viruses.’ 

Geely’s claim centers on the Icon’s air purification system, which is certified to CN95 – or 95 percent filtration of particles down to 0.3 microns. A series of anti-bacterial filters then ‘kill the escaped virus’, says Geely. 

Other Chinese marques have followed suit, including SAIC, which owns the MG brand. Its solution includes an ultraviolet lamp to sterilize passing air. But are such claims merely a marketing ploy?

Sealing a car ‘almost impossible’

a car parked in a parking lot: Geely Icon © Provided by Motoring Research Geely Icon

Werner Bergman, research director at Aerosol Science, is skeptical. He told SAE International: ““I would be suspicious of any claims for effective ambient filtration that does not involve slightly pressurizing the cabin with filtered air”.

However, “It is almost impossible to have a sufficiently sealed cabin or room,” he adds. 

Electric carmaker Tesla has also made bold claims about cabin filtration. Its Model X and Model S have a ‘Bioweapon Defense Mode’ that is claimed to remove ‘at least 99.97 per cent of fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants, as well as bacteria, viruses, pollen and mold spores’.

Putting Tesla to the test

a car parked in front of a building: Tesla Model X © Provided by Motoring Research Tesla Model X

In reality, though, the protection Bioweapon Defense Mode offers from coronavirus may be limited.

Speaking to Gizmodo, Michael Buchmeier, deputy director of the Pacific Southwest Regional Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases at the University of California, said: “[Filtration to] 0.3 micrometre won’t hold back viruses. It will hold back most bacteria, but it won’t hold back viruses”.

The good news is that a corona-proof car probably isn’t necessary. “I can’t think of any circumstance where the outdoor COVID-19 concentration is so high that one needs a vehicle filtration system,” explained Bergman.

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