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Cooking COVID with Vehicle Tech

Ford engineers working on raising the temperature of a test van
Ford engineers working on raising the temperature of a test van

A Ford process that can decontaminate vehicles of the virus

We recently reported on how Cadillac’s virtual showrooms resonated through Cadillac Live! – an amazing feat for a legacy automaker during COVID-19. Well, yet another amazing feat was achieved this month, this time by Ford.

The car company announced that it is piloting a new sanitation software solution that can help neutralize the COVID-19 virus inside its Police Interceptor Utility vehicles. The software basically cranks the heat for a predetermined time to decrease the potential spread of the virus. The Ford engineering team initiated a project in late March on an idea to decontaminate vehicles using heat. Shortly after, a discussion with the New York City Police Department alerted Ford to their need for a more efficient disinfecting process during the pandemic. The team found that many police agencies universally spoke of the need to disinfect vehicles more efficiently, and conserve supplies and equipment that’s already in short supply.

The software solution utilizes the vehicle’s existing powertrain and climate systems to temporarily raise the interior temperature of the vehicle beyond 133 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, helping reduce the viral concentration inside the vehicle by greater than 99 percent. (Ford calls it the ‘Death Valley’ approach.) The heating process can be used to help sanitize vehicles when officers are not inside their vehicles, potentially reaching areas that may be missed by manual disinfecting procedures, helping to keep these first responders safe while they continue to protect the public. The software solution is available now in model year 2013-2019 Police Interceptor Utility vehicles.

Ford first started discussions with The Ohio State University to determine the temperature range and time needed to help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus; additionally, Ford conducted software operational trials with vehicles owned by the New York City Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department and other departments around the country.

Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s chief product development and purchasing officer, talked about the project: “First responders are on the front lines protecting all of us. They are exposed to the virus and are in dire need of protective measures. We looked at what’s in our arsenal and how we could step up to help. In this case, we’ve turned the vehicle’s powertrain and heat control systems into a virus neutralizer.”

Ford’s app measures the progress of heat-disinfection software


According to Ford, the solution is simple: Bake the vehicle until viruses inside are neutralized. Using Police Interceptor Utility’s own powertrain and climate control systems, this software solution enables vehicles to elevate interior cabin temperatures to levels hotter than a desert on its hottest day, for at least long enough to help disinfect vehicle touchpoints. Once activated, the vehicle’s powertrain and climate control systems work together automatically to elevate interior cabin temperatures. The software warms up the engine to an elevated level, and then turns both the heat and fan settings on high. Interior temperatures are automatically monitored by the software to know when the entire cabin hits the optimal level and that temperature is then maintained for at least a quarter of an hour.

To figure out when the procedure is working or when a vehicle is ready, Ford uses the vehicle electronic bus network to flash the hazard lights and the taillights to illuminated in a preset pattern to notify when the process has started. They will change at the end of the disinfecting process. The instrument cluster will indicate the progress of the procedure. A cool-down process has also been developed to help bring the temperature down from its highest points. After all, vehicles interiors are designed to be hot. According to the CDC, when temperatures outside range from 80 degrees to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature inside a car parked in direct sunlight can quickly climb to between 130 to 172. So, the interiors are used to it.

Cleaning Easily Overlooked Interior Areas

The heating process can be used by law enforcement regularly to help sanitize vehicles when officers are not inside their vehicles. When used in conjunction with sanitization guidelines approved by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flooding the cabin with elevated air temperature can help reach areas that may be missed by manual disinfecting procedures. Heat has the ability to seep into crevices and hard-to-reach areas, helping reduce the impact of human error when applying chemical disinfectants. Ford conducted software operational trials in vehicles owned by the New York City Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Michigan State Police, Massachusetts State Police, Boardman Township Police Department in Ohio and Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Florida.

“Law enforcement officers are being dispatched as emergency responders in some cases where ambulances may not be available,” said Stephen Tyler, Ford Police brand marketing manager. “During one trip, officers may be transporting a coronavirus patient to a hospital, while another trip may involve an occupant who may be asymptomatic. Officers can now use this self-cleaning mode as an extra layer of protection inside the vehicle in areas where manual cleaning is prone to be overlooked. This virus is an invisible enemy and we are proud to provide a solution to help the community fight it.”

Command Sequence

For 2016-19 police vehicles, the heated software process can be activated by a smart sequence of commands that involves pressing cruise control buttons in a predefined order. For 2013-15 vehicles, this mode can be activated and carried out through an external tool that connects to the onboard diagnostics port. “Vehicles from the 2013 to 2019 model years make up the majority of Police Interceptor Utility vehicles currently in use by first responders,” said Tyler. “Delivering this new capability to these vehicles first allows us to help as many officers as possible, as quickly as possible.”

Ford will continue working on ways to bring this software capability to additional Ford police vehicles. We spoke with Elizabeth Kraft, the manager of Ford Commercial Vehicle Communications, who noted, “We will monitor results from the pilot to determine if we will bring this software solution to other Ford vehicles. We are only offering this solution on Ford Police vehicles at this time. We will have more information to share at a later date.”

If this program proves very effective, we might even see aftermarket solutions that would be easy for 12-volt remote start companies to implement.