At the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show, held virtually online mid-January, General Motors unveiled, by way of an animated video, an electric car-cum-plane concept seemingly perfect for our physically distant times. The Cadillac eVTOL, a single-person, Star Wars-like pod, hovers off the top of a skyscraper, whisks someone across a city, well above the traffic below, and deposits the person (presumably some kind of CEO – it is a Cadillac after all) on another tower. Overall, it’s a vision of commuting without the need to share buses, trains, Lyfts or sidewalks with anyone else.
Anyone eager for this Jetsons, germ-averse future should not get too excited: The eVTOL is more a fantasy than fact, a rendering as opposed to a reality. But the pandemic-driven worries about cohabiting in tight, enclosed environments could still reshape cars as we know them, even if all four wheels remain on the asphalt. Touch-free doors, self-cleaning surfaces and roomier interiors are on the verge of appearing, with cars providing the same comforts and sanitary reassurances as our shelter-in-place spaces.
The pandemic is happening at an already tumultuous moment for the auto industry. Prior to COVID-19, ride-sharing services were shaking up the notion of traditional car ownership. Particularly in urban areas such as Vancouver and Toronto, where the cost of parking is astronomical, and cash-strapped city dwellers have had more pressing expenses – housing, housing, housing – there was a growing preference for hopping in and out of Lyfts, rather than taking on the upkeep and insurance of a car.
“I see that coming back,” says Miles Hammond, president of Ottawa’s Studio 63, an independent design studio with a focus on cars and autonomous technology. “Especially if work from home continues, I imagine people looking at the car in the driveway, realizing they don’t need the expense, wanting the convenience of having a car service on-demand to take them from place-to-place.”
While there has been in a recent bump in first-time car buyers hoping to avoid public transit, to Hammond’s point, the Further with Ford 2021 Trends Report, a survey of more than 13,000 Ford owners from around the world, found that 60 per cent of respondents said they needed fewer vehicles for their household. Sheryl Connelly, chief futurist at the Ford Motor Company, parses the data by saying people might want fewer expenses while under stay-at-home orders, but also that “congestion was a big concern before the pandemic,” she says. “When things open up, it’s doubtful people will want to sit in grid-lock traffic again. Certain mobility solutions – electric bikes and scooters and ride sharing – can help alleviate that.”
The question is how to do it safely. Hammond anticipates that self-cleaning devices using ultra-violet light will soon be installed in cars to kill germs both in the air and on surfaces. “They might be installed standard in new models,” he says. “If someone wants to make a fortune, they should design an after-market insert. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Car companies are already moving in that direction. “Safety and well-being are always a priority in our cars,” says Ken Saward, director of automotive design for Mazda North America. “Currently, something we see huge demand for in customer feedback is disinfecting systems. I imagine maybe having a UV light that activates when the door locks, and maybe takes a few minutes to clean the car.”
Andrew Smith, executive director of Cadillac design at General Motors, agrees that self-cleaning cars might become commonplace, especially for car-sharing and taxi services. “There will have to be something, maybe a light or something on the dash, to telegraph the cleanliness to the passenger,” he says. “People will want an assurance that the car is clean.”
While COVID-19 might be more easily transmitted through the air as opposed to through surfaces, lingering caution about germs on, say, door handles, might create a push toward touch-less cars. Smith says technology already exists for doors that open and close when a passenger approaches – their ID known by their phone or a key in their pocket. “It’s already common in Japan,” he says.
Smith also adds the whole car buying process is being pared down to minimize human-to-human contact. According to Jay McKeen, dealer-principal at Carter Cadillac in Calgary, pre-COVID, buying a car used to involve interacting with up to a dozen different people, face-to-face. “We’ve stream-lined that as much as possible,” he says, including having digital launch parties to reveal new models and sales sessions taking place on Zoom, with the option for cars to be delivered to customers front doors, without them ever having to step into a dealership.
Beyond car sharing, electrification was a burgeoning reality pre-COVID, one that appears to be continuing. In 2020, while conventional car sales declined by 20 per cent globally, according to Statiststa, electric vehicle sales were up by 43 per cent around the world, according to Swedish consultancy EV-Volumes.com.
That electrification, which can result in smaller engines and therefore roomier interiors, is intersecting with another pandemic desire. According to a recent Volvo survey, one in three Canadians have been yearning for new living spaces in their homes. Under-utilized garages are a prime target. But perhaps oddly, so are cars. From the Ford 2021 Trends Report, a quarter of respondents used their cars as a place to relax, a fifth as a place to get privacy and 17 per cent as a place to do work.
“We are always in touch with our customers,” says Robin Page, senior vice-president of design at Volvo in Gothenburg, Sweden. “One of the interesting things we’ve heard is that as electric cars are charging, people can still sit in them and use the features, without creating fumes. So people are getting out of their houses by sitting in their cars, in their garages, listening to music, maybe watching movies.”
Page predicts that escapism might be even better facilitated as cars become self-driving, and instead of all passengers facing forward to better pay attention to the road, the space can be reconfigured so that everyone can sit facing one another, collaborating as around a boardroom table, playing cards or facing a screen to watch an episode of Friends. Says Page: “That might bring us closer to our goal of designing cars that feel just as welcoming as a Scandinavian living room.”
A by-the-numbers look at how electric cars are becoming more commonplace.
In 2020, more than 50 per cent of new car sales in Norway were electric, a global record.
In 2020, Quebec, Canada’s second largest province, said that non-electric car sales will be banned after 2035, matching similar regulations set in California, America’s most populous state.
Tesla delivered a record number of cars to customers in 2020 – just under 500,000 – helping make Tesla founder Elon Musk the world’s richest man in early 2021.
According to an analysis by the Canadian government, the range of electric vehicles – the distance they can travel between battery charges – nearly doubled between 2013 and 2019, to 386 kilometres from 219 km. The growing range is helping assuage worries of electric vehicles running out of steam mid commute.
In 2020, the average cost of charging an electric car in Canada was $277, according to Uswitch, a U.K.-based price comparison website.