The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Probably Going To Permanently Change The Way We Relate To Cars

Illustration for article titled The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Probably Going To Permanently Change The Way We Relate To Cars
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

When 2020 kicked off, we knew the automotive industry was changing, but no one could have predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic would have as much of an impact as it’s had. As the virus has lingered in America, it’s become clear that we want something different from the way we relate to our cars.

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Buying Online

Two out of three car buyers are open to a 100 percent online buying experience, a study from AutoTrader reports. Luxury automakers like Genesis are already offering options like this, where you can order a car online and have it delivered to you without ever having to step into a dealership.

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It’s an attractive option for people who don’t want to go through an already arduous buying experience. From the study:

Consumers have always wanted quicker interactions during their automotive experience, and now, with more online tools available to them such as scheduled test drives, pick-up and delivery, their willingness to completing the entire vehicle purchase online is accelerating exponentially.

While there’s certainly still value in being able to see a car in person before making a purchase, there’s a lot more accountability now than in the past. If you have a bad buying experience, you can always take to the Internet to complain and, in some way, hold that brand accountable.

People just don’t feel they can adequately socially distance in a dealership scenario, and the longer the pandemic has lasted, the more open people have become online shopping.

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Driving, Not Public Transit

It makes sense that folks are growing less and less interested in public transit these days. There’s been a big push in recent years to expand things like subways, trains, and bus services in order to reduce the number of cars on the road, but we’ve seen a regression as a result of COVID-19.

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At this exact moment, plenty of people have been putting off new car purchases, but that has less to do with the virus itself than its economic impact, AutoTrader notes. Millions of people are still unemployed, and the economy still isn’t exactly booming; investing in a car is probably not on most peoples’ radar right now.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not driving.

“COVID-19 has caused vehicle ownership to become more vital to consumers’ everyday lives, often replacing other transportation methods such as ride-sharing or public transit,” notes a CarGurus study of Canadian drivers.

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We perceive public transportation as more dangerous than personal travel, and that’s not wrong: confined spaces, high-touch surfaces, and the inability to quickly determine which person is sick makes it a riskier option than taking the family car. And, the longer this pandemic plays out, the more firmly these perceptions of uncleanliness will settle into our brains.

It’s the same thing with air travel. While some folks have been trying to push a study saying contracting COVID-19 on airplanes is rare, the whole concept of sitting in close confines with people breathing the same recycled air is unappealing. The onset of the pandemic saw a 96 percent decrease in air travel, and while more people are flying, they aren’t doing so with the same abandon they had been pre-pandemic. Many of those people are turning to their cars to get them where they need to go.

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Electric And Autonomous Options

One of the biggest surprises for me is the fact that the pandemic has people more interested in electric and autonomous options than they had been before. Nearly one-third of new vehicle shoppers are interested in EVs, and that largely comes down to the perception that it would enable drivers to avoid high-touch areas in a gas station. Charging stations will likely present a problem in and of itself, but EV owners can also opt for a home charger.

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In part, this also comes down to a greater familiarity with EVs. They’re not really new anymore. We see them on the road and have likely noted the nearest charger to us.

This is also paired to our beliefs about autonomous vehicles, which we think we know but about which many folks are still a little hazy. If we’re going to be opting for driving more often in our personal cars, we’re going to be more interested in handing over the reins the way we’ve done in airplanes and public transit.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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Elizabeth, are you the only person providing weekend content? It seems like lately there’s a great dearth of new content between Friday evening and Monday morning.