Will my car’s cabin air filter help reduce the spread of coronavirus?

By Mark Elias 04/06/2020 11:48am

It seems within the last 30 years or so, cabin air filters have become a regular part of your vehicle. Automakers tout their ability to filter out dust, particles, smells and more. But can they help to protect a vehicle’s occupants against the coronavirus (COVID-19)? We’ll take a look at that in a minute, but first, consider the lowly facemask.

You see people everywhere traveling while wearing filtration facemasks over their nose and mouths. It may be a bit off-putting, and those individuals think they are doing their part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but are they? That depends. If you are carrying the virus already, a mask may protect others from catching it from droplets that may spray from your mouth, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But it is not a total failsafe.

And that’s where your car’s cabin filtration system is similar to the mask.

Some car filtering systems consist of a HEPA filter, which is designed to purify, or at least filter, the air coming into the cabin of your vehicle. HEPA Filters in automobiles are a type of pleated air filter. It is an acronym for “high efficiency particulate air” filter. It is not a failsafe as particulates can enter when a door is opened or a window is lowered. Additionally, not every filter that says so is a true HEPA filter as the term has taken on a marketing life of its own.

Virus particulates often too small to catch

First of all, consider that the coronavirus particulate measures between .06 and .14 microns in diameter. Most HEPA filters in today’s modern vehicles can trap germs down to .3 microns, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers.

SAE’s publication, Automotive Industries, states “The goal of reliably filtering coronavirus from a vehicle cabin has myriad challenges. The efficiency and adsorption functions, the need for effective and safe anti-allergen additives and the form factor of the filter all must work as a system – one that’s comfortable for passengers using the vehicle’s air conditioning and that can be industrialized by manufacturers. There’s no silver bullet.”


Then, consider that beyond six feet, the filters offer little in the way of effectiveness.  The other thing to consider is that with these HEPA systems, it recirculates the cabin air through the filter.  Like Las Vegas, what’s in the cabin stays in the cabin. That includes germs, sneezes, sniffles and more. It just keeps circulating about the cabin in search of a crack or crevice to attach itself to.

For that reason, carry wipes and hand sanitizer on your person, so they are right at hand for cleanup as soon as you get inside your vehicle.

How often does a cabin filter last?

Typically, the filters in these systems last between 15,000 and 20,000 miles or approximately 12 months. Since the filtration system is designed to deliver clean air to the vehicle’s air conditioning system, at a certain point flow from the HVAC vents on your dash may be reduced because of a clogged filter. Changing it out too early will waste money but waiting too long to change it will tax the filter’s efficiency also.

For simplicity’s sake, change to a new filter at the start of winter. It’s the best time of year to change because pollen growth will not hit its peak until spring.

Aftermarket approaches to filtration

JVC is a company known more for its audio systems and Bluetooth speakers. They introduced an air filtration system at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Small enough to fit in a typical car cupholder and looking similar to a tall version of Amazon’s Echo device, according to JVC, it can turn your vehicle’s cabin air twice every hour. Whether it is effective with germs from the COVID-19 outbreak remains to be seen.

Future tech is alive and under development at Yanfeng Global Automotive Interiors. A supplier to automakers around the world, they have developed a “wellness pod” that cleans the air within a vehicle while the car, truck or SUV is not occupied. The device uses UV-C technology, which is effective but has been found to possibly cause cancer, which is why the vehicle must not be occupied while the cleaning process is occurring.