Ford and U of Michigan Aim to Curb New Car Smells

Posted by at 2:11 pm on October 17, 2012

When I was little, and no the Edsel wasn’t a new model then, one of the joys of buying a new car was the “New Car” smell. It was the smell of happiness and freedom.

Now we have learned that “fresh from the showroom” smell might be harmful. It is better to not have the any bromine-based flame retardants scents in the cabin and used PVC-free (polyvinyl chloride) fabrics and trim in the interior.

Now Ford along with the University of Michigan Researchers are fighting another odor and potential health issue source – microbes in new cars and trucks.

These microscopic organisms including mold and mildew can quickly take hold and spread over a variety of surfaces leading to discoloration, something an air freshener just cannot not mask.

And we know you try to mask those smells. Market research firm Mintel reports Americans spend approximately $2.3 billion annually on air fresheners including hanger products found dangling from car mirrors. So this is a problem many of face, not just those of us who live in the Pacific NorthWet of Seattle and Portland.

Plus for many people out there, they do not want to exposes their children, family members or they themselves may be sensitive to chemicals used in those air fresheners.  Or they may simply don’t care for the scents of many air fresheners.

Here is a another fun fact; Americans spend more than $1 billion annually on a variety of products including lotions, wipes and sprays to fight microbial growth.

So What Can Be Done?

Working with University of Michigan researchers lead by microbial ecologist Dr. Blaise Boles, Ford engineers studied vehicle interiors to learn where these microbes grow and developed interior coating formulations that could resist and potentially even reverse microbial growth. The antimicrobial-treated coating is currently undergoing real-world testing in Ford development vehicles and is being evaluated for potential use in future Ford vehicles.

“Vehicle cabins are exposed to a wide variety of environmental conditions that can make them microbial breeding grounds,” said Cindy Peters, Ford Motor Company technical expert. “Based on growing consumer desire for health and wellness solutions, we decided to take a look at the interiors in Ford vehicles with the goal of creating a cleaner, more aesthetically pleasing environment for our customers.”

They took took swabs from 10 locations in the vehicle interior including the steering wheel, radio buttons, door handles, window switches and gear shift knobs. The U-M researchers found significant bacteria growth at most of the test locations with the highest concentrations on the steering wheel and the area around the cupholders.

“Our findings suggest car interiors are complex ecosystems that house trillions of diverse microorganisms interacting with each other, with humans, and with their environment,” said Boles, assistant professor in the U-M Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. “The long-term goal is to define the microbial ecology of the car interior and to optimize the design of car interiors to promote comfort and environmental sustainability.”

“We weren’t surprised to find microbial hot spots on the steering wheel, since that is where a driver’s hands are most of the time,” added Peters. “The console area near the cupholders is a common location for spilled drinks, so it provides an ideal feeding ground for microbes.” (I think we’ve all had scary thoughts about what might be growing in the cupholders of our cars)

Cars and trucks generally have a much longer life span than antimicrobial products most of us use at home, plus vehicles operate in a wider range of environmental conditions than we ever want found in our homes and places of work.  On top of that owners want their cars and trucks to look great and work great for many years.

With all of that in mind, The team focused their attention on three commonly used and EPA-approved antimicrobial additives including silver-ion, ammonium salt and polyolefin wax with a nano-silver coating. Panels painted with four different formulations were then evaluated back at the U-M lab to assess the growth rates of microorganisms.

The winner was the silver-ion additive, sold under the trade name Agion. Parts coated with the Agion-infused paint showed clear beat out parts with the current production paint. Even after simulating many years of use, the Agion-infused coating was still nearly as effective as it was when brand-new. The additive also had little impact on the gloss and color change of the surfaces over the test period.

How Does It Work

Agion, based on elemental ions, works by starving, sterilizing and suffocating the microbes to prevent them from growing and reproducing.

Ford is doing more “real world” testing to  evaluated the coating for potential use in future Ford vehicles to provide a pleasant cabin environment over the long haul.

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