It seems like it’s been a decade since the start of 2020, but we’re still a couple of months out from the finish line. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered nearly every aspect of ordinary, everyday life, from the way we shop for groceries to how our kids attend school. With the exception of a few highly creative pivots and workarounds that we will continue to use even when the threat of coronavirus is no more (wine delivery, anyone?), most of these changes have been frustrating, to say the least.

With all this change, it’s no surprise that even the auto industry has been influenced by the pandemic, to the point where some of the design concepts we have begun to see for 2021 are futuristic, in a way that is more “dystopian economy” than “the flying cars from Back to the Future Part II.” Here is an in-depth look at how COVID-19 has factored into the design, production, and purchase of cars (and sale of cars, as well!), and what that can mean for design concepts in the coming years.

Downsizing Design

Do you really need room for passengers if you’re practicing social distancing? That seems to be a question on the minds of auto manufacturers. Faced with the prospect of the end of carpooling, ride-share, and other activities that require ample seating, it’s not impossible to believe that we will soon be seeing much smaller vehicles, including single-seat models, rolling off of the assembly line.

Of course, households with more than two people will always have a need for sedans, minivans, and the like, but as car designers imagine a future where social distancing remains necessary, concepts for much more compact car designs are emerging.

Safety First

As you may expect, the need for safety in the form of sanitation is also top-of-mind for auto designers heading into the 2021 model year. Hyundai, Kia, and Ford are playing with ideas for technology that can help ensure drivers that their cars are safe havens from the virus. 

Hyundai has been experimenting with ultraviolet rays that come down from the dome light inside the vehicle to offer protection against viruses and other germs hiding on the interior. However, since UV light notoriously harms the skin, this feature would only be able to be employed when the driver is not in the car. 

Karim Habib, the design chief at Hyundai’s sister company Kia, mused about the potential for UV rays and other virus-killing agents during an interview with Britain’s Car magazine, saying, “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.”

Habib also brought up the possibility of developing new, germ-repellent materials for use in the manufacture of door handles, gear selectors, steering wheels, and other common touchpoints- all technology we may be seeing sooner rather than later in Kia models for 2021 and beyond.

Instead of making use of germ-killing ultraviolet rays, Ford has released software that bakes viruses by heating the cabin to approximately 133 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. This feature is already available on the Explorer-based Police Interceptor Utility, and the American motor giant plans to add it to other models in the near future.

Expediting Electric Cars (?)

According to the New York Times, registrations of electric cars went up by 23 percent in Europe just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. Due to lockdowns and economic crisis in the following months, gas and battery-powered cars alike saw sales decline; however, electric cars managed to hold onto more new sales than their gas-guzzling competition. While this may be an indicator that electric cars are about to become more prevalent and popular on the road, Berlin analyst Matthias Schmidt told the Times that it was still unclear whether this small surge was an actual trend or a quirk due to many of the European electric cars having been ordered or registered earlier in 2020, before the onset of the pandemic.

Like nearly every other aspect of our lives, the coronavirus pandemic has managed to infiltrate car design to the point where the cars we buy in just a few short years’ time may look nothing like what is currently sitting in our garages at home. Through virus-killing technologies and radically-downsized design concepts, the auto industry is giving us clues to what life may look like for us all in the years to come. Until these new designs hit the showrooms, it might be best to keep your old vehicle running well.

About the Author

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Mirko Humbert

Mirko Humbert is the editor-in-chief and main author of Designer Daily and Typography Daily. He is also a graphic designer and the founder of WP Expert.