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COVID-19 has meant new ways of doing just about everything while forcing us to keep our distance from each other or stay in bubbles. In terms of cars, it’s really cut our mileage and our gas bills, but it’s also done something else that may turn out to be quite important for the automotive industry. It’s highlighted how cars provide isolation by default. This has led to the birth of drive-by graduation parades, the resurgence in drive-in movies, the renewed popularity of drive-through restaurants … and the COVID car.
Could the car be our new PPE?
Car culture was at the height of its popularity in the 1950s and 60s; since then, it’s been undergoing a gradual decline until very recently when we likely reached “peak car”. The exact date is debatable but all signs in 2018 pointed in that direction: car production was down, ride-sharing services were up, and fewer teens were getting licenses.
And then the novel coronavirus hit. Car buying ground to a halt with sales plummeting 71 percent in China, 47 percent in the US, and 80 percent in Europe. Of course, this affected not just car manufacturers but anyone else whose livelihood is associated with them.
Now, in a surprising turn of events, it looks as though this virus may be a different kind of game changer for the automotive industry. After all, a single-occupancy car is the original social distancing machine.
Seeing the vehicle as refuge
According to Hannah Keshishian, Automotive Analyst at Mintel, vehicle ownership used to be a question of the have and have-nots whereas now it appears the vehicle is transforming into a new form of PPE that impacts everyone. Financially healthy households are looking at buying an additional vehicle to help mitigate the risks of contracting COVID-19 through any form of mass transit or shared mobility. However, financially struggling households are also considering taking on additional financial risk to buy a vehicle, as they literally can’t afford to contract the virus as it will affect their ability to work.
In a surprising turn of events, it looks as though this virus may be a different kind of game changer for the automotive industry.
In an article from media giant Bloomberg, designers from Mercedes, Jaguar, and Rolls-Royce say they’re looking at ways to evolve air purifiers to increase the protective quality of their cars. Gorden Wagener, Daimler’s head of design, also has been exploring what Covid-19 means for the future of vehicle design. And Adam Hatton, creative director at Jaguar Land Rover, agrees that people want to feel especially protected in their cars due to the pandemic.
Car culture makes a comeback
A sign that car culture may be making a comeback due to COVID-19 is the recent explosion in the RV market. Travelers who were eager to get outside after months of quarantine but were still leery of flying, staying in hotels, or using public bathrooms turned to self-contained recreational vehicles as the answer.
As a result, manufacturers saw a spike in sales with many struggling to meet the increase in demand. RV dealers throughout the US experienced increases in sales as high as 170 percent compared to 2019. Anyone who tried to book a campsite (yours truly included) was hard-pressed to find availability. Vacationing with our vehicles is not something new but the sheer number of people preferring this recreational option over other types of vacations certainly was.
Another sign of a comeback in car culture was a resurgence in drive-ins. This included new, temporary uses such as this year’s Calgary Film Festival, which hosted four nights of drive-ins rather than its traditional screenings. All shows sold out.
Public transit participation remains low
While it’s been debated whether public transportation accelerated the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) still advises employers to encourage employees to avoid transit and to drive alone to work whenever possible.
Riders are staying away in droves. A new study from Statistics Canada shows that the COVID-19 crisis led to a disproportionate decline in public transit use in Canada compared to car travel. By June (the most recent month captured in the figures), ridership had increased but was still 74.6 percent below normal. The US experience was similar and remained exceptionally low as of August.
COVID cars gaining in popularity
According to the Atlantic, young adults, who haven’t needed cars or who felt cars are more expense than they’re worth, are suddenly deciding to get cars. Even though car sales on the whole were down in early summer, car sales among 18-35-year-olds were up.
Used cars are in demand too and prices have been spiking amid severe inventory shortages. Inventory is down 22 percent in July from the previous year while demand for used cars is higher than ever.
After the pandemic subsides
According to McKinsey, a third of consumers value constant access to a private vehicle more than they did before COVID-19 and half say they are open to extending their use of private vehicles beyond traveling in order to connect with the outside world in a safe way.
While car manufacturers took a hit in 2020, many signs point to a resurgence in car popularity. That said, it remains unclear whether car usage will return to its pre-crisis pattern or whether some of our behavioral changes during this crisis will stick after the pandemic subsides.