Liability or lifeline: how did you use your car during the pandemic?

We might have not been going far in the past year but many found new uses for their motors, according to a recent study

Do you miss your car? After all, our motors have been parked in place for much of the pandemic, causing dust to cake over fine glossy finishes.

Stay-at-home edicts meant fast cars went nowhere quick, potent engines roared no more and we lost interest in our kilometre-munching machines. Except, that’s not quite true, is it?

"Da Vinci of Dust," artist Scott Wade, reveals beauty in dirty cars at Toronto exhibit to celebrate $2 million raised for Cystic Fibrosis through CARSTAR's annual national Soaps it Up car wash. (CNW Group/CARSTAR Collision & Glass Centres)

Admit it, you occasionally snuck out for a covert cruise on deserted roads, revelling in the moment when you broke free of the gilded cage you formerly called home.

No? Well, at the very least you sought the solitude afforded by your car, especially if the stuck-at-home children turned your domicile into a zoo. Maybe you’re not going to admit to that, either, but did I at least elicit a wry grin?

Don’t worry, you weren’t alone. Recent research by Peugeot found that 41 per cent of households with four or more people admitted to spending alone time in their cars without going anywhere. More than half confessed to using it as a quiet place to relax away from others, while 47 per cent used it to catch up on TV shows and 43 per cent retired there to read. A third said they used it as a remote office for work.

Legitimate conjecture might suggest a renewed interest in car-sharing schemes, after so many found themselves with hefty monthly loan repayments as well as insurance, registration and maintenance costs for cars they weren’t using.

The concept of borrowing as and when required, rather than outright owning a big lump of metal, which actually spends 95 per cent of its time parked (according to a 2005 US study), should appeal.

Or at least it did before Covid-19. Last year, many countries found massive drop-offs in travellers using public transport, counteracted by a rise in used-car purchases. The reason for this is simple social distancing. People don't want to share space with others if they can help it.

You’d rather be sat in traffic in your own car, which you’ve meticulously disinfected, instead of being crammed in a bus, tram or metro, millimetres from commuters sneezing in your vicinity. When it comes to the tube in London, many of us still shudder at the thought of swapping seats pre-warmed by a stranger, hanging on to a slithery rail, and queuing up on platforms so congested you can smell your fellow passengers’ breakfast.

Similarly horrifying is the thought of sharing a car with unknown others who’ve previously potentially touched every element of the interior, from the seat adjusters, steering wheel and indicators to AC and stereo controls.

Of course, all of this is notwithstanding the fact that not once, but twice, extensive tests over months by scientists taking swabs from handrails, escalators, bus shelters and card readers on Transport of London failed to find any traces of the coronavirus, deeming the city's public transport safe.

Additionally, while the coronavirus can live on a solid surface for up to four days, it can also be killed off in minutes by sunlight or UV radiation. And while most modern cars do have UV protection in their windows, enough can still get through to eradicate a virus.

In the US, Ford engineered police cars to allow the interior heating to be remotely activated. Why? Heating the cabin to 56°C for 15 minutes is said to kill the coronavirus. Meanwhile, companies such as Jaguar-Land Rover are working on in-car filtration systems that can inhibit virus and airborne bacteria by 99 per cent.

Our fears then, are unfounded yet well nurtured. Car-sharing schemes are out, buying your own car is in. If you had contemplated shedding tears for an industry reeling from 20 per cent loss of annual global sales, fret not. Carmakers should do alright out of this.

Dealers, maybe not so much. With showrooms closed or largely abandoned during the pandemic, there’s been a dramatic shift to buying online, utilising click-and-collect or delivery services. The future for physical showrooms remains cloudy.

Any talk of the demise of car ownership, the auto industry in general, and our ongoing love affair with the mode in particular, seems premature. If anything, a new renaissance of roving romance with our rides seems to be proliferating. Just don’t forget to sanitise the steering wheel.

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