How to Also Keep Your Car Healthy

July 1, 2020
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Along with making medical equipment, the car industry is finding ways to keep their customers safer, like coming to you when your car needs service. The response of the auto industry in times of national peril is legendary. Detroit’s reputation as the Arsenal of Democracy, producing the tens of thousands of bombers and tanks that helped the Allies win World War II, is well-deserved.

In the pandemic of 2020, the challenge is again enormous, but the materiel needed to prevail is less familiar territory to the foundries, stamping lines and assembly plants that normally produce sedans and sport-utility vehicles. Now it is medical equipment. And automakers are also making provisions for owners, who still need to repair, maintain and possibly even replace cars.

Car companies around the world have stepped up. In the United States, Ford Motor is shifting production to air-purifying respirators, gowns and test collection kits, and General Motors is making ventilators and face masks. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is involved with ventilator production in Italy, and Toyota is offering the expertise of its Toyota Production System Support Center to companies seeking to begin manufacturing vital supplies. Smaller targeted assistance projects have popped up from many car companies, often to provide personal protective equipment: The shop that builds engines for the Mercedes-AMG Formula One team has jumped into the production of breathing assistance equipment.

Other makers have established more direct programs, focused on essential health care workers. In England, Aston Martin’s heritage workshop is providing free labor for emergency repairs to the vehicles of health service workers. Mazda’s Essential Car Care Program in the United States goes several steps further, offering free oil changes and what it calls enhanced cleaning for most make and model cars — not just Mazdas — to all health care workers. A $500 credit is available to eligible first responders and health care professionals on new Honda and Acura vehicles financed or leased through the companies’ financial services arm. Hyundai’s First Responders Program has similar provisions.

Volvo is pitching in on lifesaving initiatives. In one program, the company is reallocating about 2,000 cars it normally uses for public relations, sales and marketing to health care groups, which include the Red Cross. The effort also allows dealers to make similar moves in their communities with loaner cars.

Special provisions for medical personnel are sometimes offered with more of a community focus. Sheehy Auto Stores, which operates 29 dealerships in Maryland and Virginia, is running a program that gives 50 percent off maintenance and repairs for active health care workers. Lauren Culbertson, director of marketing for the group, said the service departments, considered essential businesses in those states, remain operational (though at roughly half capacity), and the showrooms are under restrictions. In Maryland, sales are by appointment only; Virginia limits the showroom to 10 customers at a time.

While the move to enable online car purchases has advanced in recent years, chains like Sheehy have had to make considerable changes to their physical locations to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Showrooms and lounges have been reconfigured for social distancing, appraisals for trade-ins are now virtual, and training for the sales teams has intensified.

Car owners have also not been forgotten in this time when even a trip to the gas station seems death-defying. Arrangements for deferred payments and extensions for leases and warranties are widely available. Retailers like Sheehy have been able to help guide customers to payment-relief programs offered by automakers. One of them, Nissan, has accommodated more than 220,000 customers in the United States needing a financial breather. In many cases, the efforts to aid individuals are regional or local — carried out by dealerships — because the impact of the virus varies so widely across the country. So call the dealer if your car needs service or repair.

One convenience being widely offered is free pickup and delivery for repairs and regular maintenance. Not only is this a way to keep people at home, it can also keep the dealership’s service department operating, if at a reduced level. In some locations, the work can be done closer to home. Under Ford’s Mobile Service pilot program introduced a year ago, nearly 200 dealers are using specially equipped Transit vans to service vehicles at customers’ homes and businesses.

Provisions for touchless drop-off and pickup (after a thorough interior disinfectant treatment) are offered by many service departments. Volvo owners will not even be without cars when theirs are picked up for a trip to the shop. Using the Volvo Valetapp, the appointment can be arranged, and a loaner car dropped off, using a smartphone. General Motors activated its Crisis Assist feature for owners of its OnStar-equipped cars and is providing them with three months of access (or three GB of data, whichever comes first) to its emergency communication system.

It is not only families that must endure the discomforts of quarantine. It is not ideal for cars to be sedentary for long stretches. Essential drives for grocery shopping or medical appointments will help keep the battery charged and prevent the tires from getting temporary flat spots where they contact the ground. Don’t be too concerned about a light coating of rust forming on the brake discs — it will be wiped off quickly as you make a few stops — but stale gasoline can be an issue. Consumer Reports suggests keeping the tank full to limit evaporation of the gas and condensation from the air. Adding a fuel stabilizer, available from auto parts stores, is worthwhile if the car will not be driven and refueled for an extended period.

One car-care task that owners can complete by themselves is a thorough interior cleaning, a smart precaution and always reasonable part of upkeep. Focus on the surfaces most frequently in contact with your hands, such as the steering wheel, seatbelt buckles and radio controls, and be mindful to use cleaning agents that will not damage the upholstery.

As this Car and Driver guide points out, water and a gentle soap are sufficient for most sanitizing chores. Wearing a face mask while you work is a thoughtful protection measure for yourself and anyone who may occupy the car after the cleanup.

Lest you need the reminder at this point: Wash your hands and don’t touch your face.

By Norman Mayersohn for The New York Times

Image Courtesy: AJ Mast for General Motors