Who would have guessed just a few months ago that face masks would become a daily topic for discussion? From east to west, availability is a key concern for people trying to protect themselves against the coronavirus. So perhaps it should come as less of a surprise that an electric car company from China has just announced a significant innovation: a new air-conditioning system certified to standards equivalent to those of a N95 mask. This means it can filter out pollutants such as PM2.5 particles but also, in the current climate, give drivers more confidence that they are shielding themselves from the coronavirus.
WM Motor’s new CleanPro filtration system was in the works long before news of the virus made global headlines, points out the carmarker’s chief strategy officer, Rupert Mitchell.
“Against the prevailing beliefs at the time, WM Motor’s founding team understood from day one that occupant safety should not only account for crash and injury prevention measures, but also in-cabin air quality. This led to the release of WM Motor’s first air purification system, CleanSpace, which coincided with the launch of our first EX5 model in September 2018. CleanSpace included active air quality monitoring and negative ion purification technology,” he told WiC.
“While plans for the upgraded CleanPro system emerged ahead of Covid-19, the addition of the UVC purifier component came as a reaction to the sudden nationwide emphasis on keeping personal living environments sanitary, which certainly includes personal vehicles,” Mitchell adds.
UVC purifiers use short-wave ultraviolet light to target airborne pathogens. Mitchell says the China Automotive and Technology Research Centre has certified CleanPro to its latest N95 standard and that the technology filters out PM0.3, PM2.5 and PM10 particles using “electrostatic absorption”.
WM Motor is one of the fast-growing newcomers to China’s increasingly crowded electric vehicle (EV) market (see WiC397 for our first mention of WM; its key backers include Baidu, the search engine giant that has invested heavily in autonomous driving).
Over the past 18 months WM Motor has used targeted customer surveying to work on upgraded versions of its new cars. Air pollution is one of the biggest concerns among Chinese consumers, so innovations centred on vehicle air-conditioning were high on the agenda.
“There are now just over 23,000 WM vehicles on China’s roads,” says Mitchell. “The ability to bring new innovations quickly to market has been key to WM Motor’s strategy, which was to develop fully-owned and operated manufacturing capabilities in order to have full control over production and the R&D cycle. This has given us the flexibility to innovate at speed and keep pace with changing consumer preferences.”
Obviously these are challenging times to be selling cars in China: the first quarter saw sales plummet as a result of the urban lockdowns to contain Covid-19. Are things now going to improve?
“Daily life in China is slowly returning to normal. However, there are still numerous restrictions on public movement and footfall in retail malls and car showrooms will take a while to get back to pre-Covid-19 levels,” Mitchell says. “It is too early to judge how quickly consumer confidence, a vital ingredient to a recovery in new car sales, will return. The government is rolling out measures to assist the EV market’s return to growth, such as extending purchase subsidies for EV’s with driving ranges above 300km.”
And production? “WM Motor‘s Wenzhou production facility formally resumed whole-vehicle production and internal battery packing on February 21, with the first batch of EX6 Plus and EX5 vehicles rolling off the production line on February 27. While production has not yet reached the maximum capacity out of our Wenzhou plant, it is steadily gaining pace,” Mitchell adds.
The new CleanPro air-conditioning system highlights a broader theme: in the wake of the coronavirus, will consumers become more sensitive about hygiene in the vehicles they travel in? Some in the industry take the view that private car ownership is going to taper off in the years ahead as people rely more on the ‘sharing economy’ model. In this future, urbanites will rely more on companies like Didi and Uber for transport, rather than keeping a family car in the garage.
However, a future of ride-sharing or shared vehicles increases the prospect of shared germs too.“Private car ownership levels in China are still substantially below the rest of the world (176 per 1,000 of population versus 800/1,000 in the US and 450/1,000 in Europe),” Mitchell explains. “But one of the major factors in analyst forecasts that China won’t reach US levels of penetration is the growth of the ride-hailing business. It is probably still too early to see the long-term impact of the pandemic on consumer preferences for private car ownership, but you would have to imagine that hygiene awareness will play a part.”
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