Breathe Deep.

Air as a luxury.

Clean air is slowly becoming a luxury. An invisible commodity that loses value the more visible it becomes. And in those areas where smog cannot be ignored, like China and India, it’s often personal wealth that decides how clean the air is that you breathe. Not everyone can afford air purifiers and face masks, much less moving to a place with less pollution.

Many city-dwellers enjoy escaping to the country. The only problem is that to get there involves a car journey that pumps even more gas into the air. In addition - breathing inside a car, despite its many filters and air circulation, will still cause more damage than a hike through the woods can make up for.

Hold your breath during rush hour.

Modern cabin filters can stop small dirt particles, pollen, odours and bacteria from entering the car. Regardless, air inside a car still doesn’t have the best reputation.

Researchers from the Institut für Umweltphysik der Universität Heidelberg set out with a mobile measuring device into the thick traffic of Munich. They found that after 45 kilometres, the levels of nitrogen dioxide inside the car were three times higher. Different tests were done in London, which found the levels of pollutants in a sealed car rose to over 20% of that of the sidewalk. Travellers in cars suffer from bad air more than pedestrians and cyclists. This is especially so when stopped at a red lights, cruising on the highway or during heavy traffic.

And there’s little a car filter can do against the fine pollutants that are no larger than a few nanometres. Especially not with open windows or when an air freshener hangs from the rear view mirror. In the future however, a car could become a sanctuary for clean air. Doors closed, windows up, breathe in.

Little Trees 2.0.

Many companies and startups are striving to improve the air quality inside cars. This target has become more urgent as commuting culture grows. In Germany alone, over 18 million people travel long distances between their home and workplace. And of these, 70% will be sat in their cars. If it’s possible to turn stressful commuting into air therapy, the car could become a saviour of public health. And clean cars would do this without producing any pollutants themselves.

For most companies focusing on interior air quality, the aim is to create a portable filter system that can be retrofitted. It should sit inside a car and absorb particles coming from open windows, open doors as well as the passengers themselves. For example, Philips GoPure cleans the air three times an hour and automatically reacts to traffic jams. With supplier Faureca, Philips has also developed an air filter that integrates with the instrument panel, seat trim or backrest. Airbubble looks like a neck pillow. This handy filter attaches to the headrest and will be available from 2018. German firm AnoKath uses a clean diffuser to disinfect the air. Docked to the cigarette lighter, it sprays a substance that reduces germs, spores and odour particles - the Little Tree 2.0.

The air can also be cleaned by electricity. Ionizers pole uncharged or positively charged molecules into negative ions. These negative ions then bind with the smallest pollutants, pollen, mites and germs. The result is an enriched air - like near the sea, or in the mountains. The more negative ions, the cleaner the air is. There are also other solutions that can be integrated into the car, like the Air Balance package from Mercedes Benz.

Tesla proved in a test that even a biological attack wouldn’t overcome a high-quality air filter system. They exposed their Model X to highly contaminated air. Within two minutes, the car’s HEPA filter reduced the dirty air inside the car to a negligible amount.

Route planning via clean air.

Like noise, air is invisible. But while loud noises are heard, fine dust, germs and pollen are not easy to detect by smell. Increasingly, apps are now assisting the human nose, providing real time information on air pollution nearby. The US firm iBlades equips its smartphone cases with environmental sensors that analyse air quality. Atmo Tube, Clean Space and PlumeLabs connect their apps with gadgets that - hanging from the rucksack or on the central console - can monitor the air. Until now, only a few public systems could reveal such data. Soon, there could be over a million.

Israeli startup Breezometer processes 1.6 TB of data from a variety of sources every hour to measure the air quality of 420 million geographical points. And the Air Quality Index Map lets you see at a glance the air pollution of certain regions or streets. The founders of this map explained in a post the value of air monitoring for the car industry. Thanks to such data, drivers and in-car systems can be warned of dirty air, and react accordingly. They could suggest a cleaner route, or automatically close the windows while turning the filters on. With air quality sensors this is already in place. Big data analysis would take this even further.

One dose of Blue Mountains, please.

Another way that in-car air quality will change is fragrance. Certain smells evoke emotions, stir memories and comfort us. Fragrance is increasingly important in marketing products and businesses that are not just visually appealing. The aforementioned Air Balance system scents the car interior at the press of a button, and passengers can choose from several options.

With fragrance systems, the air experience inside a car can reach new dimensions. Currently, bottles of clean air are a market hit in China’s smog-plagued metropolises. For around 20 USD you can enjoy 130 breaths of fresh air from the Blue Mountains and Gold Coast regions of Australia. Applied in a car, your drive home could soon include a respiratory trip to the North Sea or an alpine barn.

Low-emission materials.

Last but not least, researchers around the world are trying to sink dangerous emissions from industrially processed materials to a minimum. Synthetic materials release volatile organic compounds (VOC) that spread within the car interior, especially in summer. Supplier Dupont uses low-emission polyoxymethylene for gears found in the seat adjusters and steering wheel. Such materials are increasingly desired for seals and adhesives that attach components in the dashboard.

Fresh air for every fourth person.

Will the car become a mobile sanctuary for fresh air? With a forecast of over two billion cars worldwide by 2040, and possibly nine billion people on the earth, one in roughly four people will enjoy clean car air. This raises an intriguing thought: today, parents send their children outdoors for fresh air. But tomorrow, this could mean sitting in the car and breathing deeply.

Authors: Christian Geiss and Jens Wollweber