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In-car environment new battleground in mainland automotive sector

Mainland car-owners are belatedly catching on to the in-cabin health hazards of their vehicles, with automobile manufacturers and standalone air purification companies increasingly keen to capitalise on these concerns.

Photo: The BYD S7: PM2.5 purification fitted as standard.
The BYD S7: PM2.5 purification fitted as standard.

A recent joint consumer association and consumer rights protection agency report set out to compare car cabin air quality across 22 mainland cities. The best performing car in the survey was the Volvo S60, with its five-star rating showing that its cabin air was between 20 and 100 times cleaner than the external environment. While it's a great result for Volvo, it's something of an indictment of both the air quality of many mainland cities and the effectiveness with which most automobile manufacturers tackle the problem.

According to a number of reports, PM2.5 density [a measure of particulate content in the air] in car cabins may be double that of the outside air after windows have been closed for 40 minutes or more. The problem of air pollution in car cabins, however, is nothing new. Plastic items, carpets, roof linings, sofas, glues and the cheap 'air fresheners' in car cabins can all contribute toxic elements to the in-car environment. The practice of smoking in cars, of course, only adds to the problem.

The mainland actually lags behind many other countries when it comes to an awareness of the problem, with a number of the developed economies having an established in-car air purification market. Japanese car manufacturers, for instance, long ago introduced a range of accessories aimed at tackling in-cabin air pollution, including anti-bacterial air conditioning. This has seen systems such as Toyota's ion generator, designed to remove bacteria and suspended matter, while deodourising the air, prove very popular in its home market.

For the mainland, though, it is a problem that the general public is not yet fully aware of. Song Guangsheng, the Director of the National Indoor and  Vehicle Environment and Environmental Production Products Quality Supervision and Inspection Center, however, believes that is about to change. He says, with the level of private car ownership on the mainland having broken the 100 million barrier in the first quarter of 2013, the issue of PM2.5 and chemical pollutants in vehicle interiors is becoming a pressing one. This is in line with the finding of another recent mainland survey that showed that car-owning families are now increasingly concerned about their travel environment.

A new USP

The success of Volvo, the Swedish auto brand acquired by Hangzhou-based Geely Automobile in 2010, in tackling the problem comes from the way the company has prioritised the issue. With auto-buyers increasingly aware of the excellent in-car environment of many of the company's models, this has proved a genuine USP for the business.

Photo: Much sought after: imported, standalone air purifiers.
Much sought after: imported, standalone air purifiers.

Other manufacturers have been quick to capitalise on this area of growing consumer concern. BYD, the Shenzhen-based car company, has recently introduced its own system – PM2.5 Green-pure Technology. The manufacturer says this can lower the PM2.5 levels in a car from 500 to below 50 within two minutes, with the level falling below 12 within four minutes. The system now comes as standard in the company's S7 range and is set to be introduced into a number of BYD's other models.

Keen not to be left behind, Dongfeng Nissan, the Wuhan-based automotive joint venture, is offering a free upgrade to the air conditioning systems of any its cars, ensuring they are PM2.5 efficient. This upgrade involves the installation of a dedicated electromagnetic filter capable of removing dust and odours, while ventilating and absorbing toxic particulate matter. According to the company, the offer has already proved hugely popular with consumers.

With awareness clearly rising, a number of other new cars are also now coming with air purification systems as standard – including the Dongfeng Citroen C4L, the Beijing-Hyundai Elantra, the Infiniti M25L, the new Audi A6L and the Roewe 950. Air purification systems were also highlighted by a number of manufacturers at the Wuhan Motor Show held in October of last year. According to one member of the team manning the Toyota Camry stand, air filtration efficiency was a concern raised by many visitors to the show.

Compact and standalone units

With the majority of vehicles in China not fitted with air purifying equipment, there is clear business opportunity in the provision of compact, standalone air conditioning units. A number of manufacturers have already begun to make significant inroads in this sector.

Philips, the Dutch electronics giant, is enjoying particular success here. Its dedicated range of in-car air purifiers sell for Rmb1,000 and above, yet remain popular because of their solid reputation and verified effectiveness. According to one test report, Philips's air conditioners are effective in removing up to 99.9% of dust and pollens and 99% of chemical volatile organic compounds. They are also said to effectively remove over 70% of bacteria, including H1N1, the virus associated with avian and swine flu.

Photo: Standalone air purifiers: clear business opportunities.
Standalone air purifiers: clear business opportunities.

Away from the international brands, a number of domestically-produced compact air purifiers are also selling well. The majority of air purifiers bought via Tmall.com, one of the mainland's leading e-commerce portals, sell for below Rmb400. The overall bestseller is available at the Zhiweichepin microsite (zwcp.tmall.com) and costs only Rmb98, a price point that has seen more than 1,000 units sold within just 15 days. Despite its popularity, there have been some concerns that the product, while looking good, underperforms on the actual air purifying front.

According to sources within the industry, low-end air purifiers can only remove formaldehyde or organic chemical gases and not likely to be effective in removing PM2.5, no matter what their manufacturers might claim. Overall, it is clear that, while domestic air purifiers may enjoy a clear cost advantage, they still need to demonstrates their effectiveness if they are to prove truly competitive.

Wu Jiang, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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