Chinese automaker Geely, whose global footprint includes owning Volvo, Polestar, Lotus, and several other automakers, has done some admirable things to help its country fight the growing COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, including donating 50 vehicles for use by emergency responders working to contain the threat. But with the global economy suddenly shuddering, it's time again to sell some cars, and Geely's decided to lean on the potential for a global pandemic to push its latest SUV.
The press release for the Geely Icon, launched earlier this week, touts the model's body-flush door handles, its 48-volt hybrid system, radar-and-camera-based "intelligent driving technologies," and a "'less is better' design ethos"—all pretty standard stuff. Then comes this whopper of a paragraph at the end:
"In response to the new Coronavirus epidemic, Geely Auto developed in record time, a new Intelligent Air Purification System (IAPS) that is N95 certified. This highly efficient air purification system works in tandem with the ICON’s air conditioner to isolate and eliminate harmful elements in the cabin air including bacteria and viruses."
If only stopping a potential pandemic was as simple as everyone buying a Geely Icon. But unfortunately the chances of a car's air filtration system—no matter how advanced—being the thing that prevents you from contracting an airborne disease is incredibly, incredibly small. The chances of Geely moving a bunch of these new SUVs based on that marketing promise in the meantime? A fair bit higher.
Though much is unknown about COVID-19—that's the specific name of this particular coronavirus, which is a blanket term for a type of virus—the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention believes the main transmission method is "via respiratory droplets among close contacts" and direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Transmission through fomites—surfaces that an infected person touches or breathes on where the virus can survive without a host for a short time—is also thought to be possible.
The CDC and other governmental health organizations around the world recommend protecting yourself from exposure to the virus with face masks and respirators that are N95 certified, which means they're 95 percent effective at capturing particles that are as small as 0.3 microns (a human hair has a diameter of between 60 and 100 microns, generally speaking). But to do so requires seating a perfect, custom-fitted seal around the wearer's face, and it's by no means a perfect safeguard. Also, the observed size of COVID-19 is well below that 0.3 micron threshold, at between 0.06 and 0.14 microns
An N95-certified filter can still catch some of these smaller particles thanks to complicated mechanisms in play—there's a full explanation in this CDC report for any filter nerds out there—and studies have shown that properly-applied N95 masks make a big difference in protecting medical workers with constant, close-quarter contact with infected patients. But to slap an N95 filter in a car's air purification system and promise that it'll give you the same protections is misleading at best and dangerous as worst.
The biggest issue is that coronavirus transmission requires close contact between people—you're not going to run into COVID-19 floating in the middle of the street, where Geely wants you to think it might get sucked up by your air intake, blasted into the cabin, and embedded in your lungs. Cars are also very much not airtight, so in the highly unlikely event that you do drive through a cloud of sneeze particles from a sick pedestrian or something, a purification system isn't the same as a sealed face mask.
It might seem like a small, innocent exaggeration to ride the dominant topic of the moment to some extra attention. In reality, this kind of stunt is the same kind of overhyped marketing that leads people to take their hands off the wheel of their very-much-not self-driving car and put themselves directly in danger. It's not the first time an automaker has touted the alleged life-saving benefits of a cabin filtration system—but it is the first time one has done so during a very real crisis. Do better, Geely.
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