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Invisibility cloaks and air purifiers: How COVID-19 will change cars

Hannah Elliott
Bloomberg News

Gorden Wagener has spent a good amount of his coronavirus quarantine thinking about waffles.

Daimler’s head of design, who created such iconic cars as the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and Vision Mercedes concepts, wanted to bake bread during his pandemic free time, but soon found the bread maker he wanted was out of stock. So he ordered a waffle iron from Williams-Sonoma instead, and the German and Germany-based designer has been perfecting his at-home recipe for the delightfully dimpled grid of syrup holders ever since.

The Mercedes-AMG GLE Coupe already offers “energizing comfort” settings that run through light mindfulness exercises to help promote circulation, breathing and inner calm.

That’s how he landed on the idea for a glove-box waffle catapult.

“The car is easily smart enough to launch a waffle accurately — you could write smart messages on the waffle and then throw it!” Wagener suggested on a recent phone call. 

Wagener, of course, spends the bulk of his workdays thinking about things rather more serious than breakfast, but the time at home has spurred him to think outside the traditional box in a lot of ways. While the pandemic is tanking global markets and has pushed the automotive industry to a standstill, Wagener has been exploring what COVID-19 means for the future of design.

“The pandemic will change our perception of how we experience safety and luxury in the future,” Wagener says, predicting that the two will become much more intimately intertwined. “This can be a challenging but an exciting time.”

Across the car world, designers remain among the relative few in the industry who can continue their daily work uninterrupted, more or less. 

Conversations among their lot have long centered around the notions of safety and luxury — how they intersect and how they’re evolving. What’s different already during the time of coronavirus is that new ideas about safety inside cars have emerged.

“The future more than ever will be about the freedom of going places safely—and these cars will be more than ever about their interior,” Felix Kilbertus, the head of exterior design for Rolls-Royce, said on a Zoom call. “An interior has always been a safe space — people will do all kinds of things in their car they won’t do on their own front lawn,” like hold business meetings, apply makeup, and, uh, pursue romance.

“The idea of the interior as a grand sanctuary has become very relevant,” he explained. “I believe it is a transformation that this current situation accelerates.”

“People want to feel protected, and now with the pandemic, even more so,” agreed Adam Hatton, the creative director for exterior design at Jaguar Land Rover, speaking by phone the same week. “We are working on the idea of Jaguars being a big, beautiful sanctuary — like a spa. It’s even more relevant now than ever.”

The idea that a vehicle can be a protective cocoon from harsh elements has always excited, of course, dating back to the coach-built Packards and Continentals and Rolls-Royces of the previous turn of the century and, before that, to the gilded and decadent confines of horse-drawn coaches. The concept of car-as-spa these days means calming mood and ambient lighting, state-of-the-art sound systems, massaging seats, warm and plush trims — all of which already exist in cars from the BMW M850i to the Porsche Cayenne Coupe to the Mercedes AMG CLA 45.

What’s more, in parts of Asia notorious for pollution, Volvo, Hyundai, and Nissan have long incorporated air quality monitors and filters into their cars. In 2010, Infiniti equipped its M line with a plasma cluster ion generator called “Forest Air,” which it said could sterilize pathogens while a sensor blocked polluted air and particulate matter from the cabin.

Along with physical health concerns like clean air, coronavirus has prompted designers to consider more closely the idea of mental and emotional health as it relates to your vehicle.

Again, this idea has been out in the ether for a bit. Models such as the GLE Coupe already offer “energizing comfort” settings that run through light mindfulness exercises to help promote circulation, breathing, and inner calm. Their 10-or-so-minute routines encourage deep breathing, meditation, and gentle stretching.

But mental health during and after the psychic trauma of an historic pandemic will mean a whole new level of concern. Future drivers will expect total efficiency and total isolation—for their own safety, says Alister Whelan, the creative director for interior design at Jaguar Land Rover.

“My young designers keep reminding me that safety isn’t always about size—people will want privacy,” Whelan says. That means unremarkable, discreet, and even forgettable exteriors (like, say, the indecipherable and ubiquitous Tesla Model S), which are all the better for staying under the radar.

It could even mean an invisibility cloak. If that sounds far-fetched, it’s not. Mercedes was experimenting with one made from LEDs and a camera back in 2012; Toyota patented a cloaking device in 2017 as a way to help drivers see through those pesky A-pillars that can hamper visibility. This time, though, the application could be way more serious. It could hide the car from governmental officials or thugs, during security breaches on public roads, or help avoid an outright attack.

The folks at Rolls-Royce talk like they’re already working on it.

“The word ‘invisibility cloak’ comes to mind, certainly,” Kilbertus says. “It’s a car that could move so quietly, so discreetly, that it would go undetected from outside threat.”

Even, one would suspect, the threat of incoming waffles.