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Automakers and drivers alike have always been obsessed with the idea of the car as personal space. Now, the pandemic is bringing it back into focus.

27 Nov 2021


The pandemic has torn its way across the globe over the last two years, breaking and then reshaping social behaviours in its wake. While feelings of intense isolation have gripped many parts of society, another phenomenon has emerged on the other extreme end: A renewed prioritisation of personal space. 

Interest in car ownership, especially among millenials, is rebounding in recent surveys
Trends in the automotive industry have suggested interest in car ownership is rebounding, partially because economies are recovering, but also crucially because commuters are keen to avoid mingling with strangers on public transport. It's understandable: Why risk it (the virus) when you can afford it (a car)? 

But while current public health circumstances are forcing us to retreat behind the lines of A and C-pillars, our treatment of our cars as fortresses against the rest of the world isn't new. 

The car all along as a personal space 

The capsule-likeness of a car has always provided refuge against the fast paces of a developing world
Back in 1987, the late American psychologist Dr Milton Horowitz had already argued in a newspaper column that being alone in one's car presented "a perfect opportunity for personal therapy", and to "get into one's feelings". "[There] is something protective and soothing about [it]", he noted.

The silent and still cabin of a car in a multi-storey carpark is indeed a surprisingly rueful space to be in after you're finally done for the day - for deep sighs, a quick game of Mobile Legends maybe, or scrolling through your chats and leaving them on "read" before heading up to settle laundry. In an environment where both events and people move at x2 speed, the capsule-likeness of a car allows you to press pause, regardless of whether you're parked or on the move.

Next on BlueSG's biz expansion list: BlueNapPod? 
Essentially, cars aren't just a means of transport - they also provide refuge and solace. When a car-sharing company in Japan realised that its cars were not moving about in spite of being rented, a customer survey yielded a colourful myriad of reasons. People were repurposing the cars for activities like catching a power nap, and even to practise rapping (both very relatable). 

This multiplicity of utility is something that carmakers have actually been cognisant of. An incredible level of detail and resources is consistently poured into ensuring that their cars are just as pleasing to be in as they are to set one's eyes on.

Carmakers mean business when they throw out terms like "home away from home" (Rear of S-Class)
Henry Ford would likely marvel at how the Model T's exposed cabin has progressed into the near-hermetic, literally amphitheatre-like lounges in the back of luxury saloons like the S-Class (ever-growing screen sizes and booming sound system included). Even lesser segments done by lesser brands are constantly striving towards a level of interior refinement that constantly shames previous generations.

Furthermore, the very definition of "personal" space is being stretched as cars become not just personalisable but personable

You can now opt for colour panels on the dashes of some car models for an amplified aura of individuality. While the radio is great, connecting your phone and blasting a specially curated Spotify playlist is more the norm now (to get into your feelings, yeah?). Even the climate control can be adjusted to the 0.5th degree. With everything in the cabin increasingly specified, this is a space that is truly controlled by you.

"Hey BMW, I’m feeling down - play my favourite sad song." "Okay, playing All Too Well (10 Minutes Version) (Taylor's Version) (From The Vault) now."
Thanks especially to the ever-blurring lines between technology and mobility, incessant talking to inanimate objects isn't just reserved for Android/Apple fanboys anymore either. "Car butlers", such as BMW's Intelligent Personal Assistant and Audi's AI, aren't just capable of conversing with you, but can also reflexively learn your routines and preferences. 

Back when screens weren't even a thing, and when seats would be described more as habitable than cushy, the car was already a personal sanctuary. Looking back now on all of the upgrades we've since collected, it's safe to say that it embodies the idea of a personal space more than before. 

In 2021 especially, however, this holds even more weight. 

Personal, safe space in a pandemic 

Public transport ridership has dropped amidst shifting restrictions and work-from-home arrangements
With the onset of the pandemic, a fresh tangent of personal space has sprouted forth: Concerns of safety and hygiene. 

As restrictions shift with the sort of speed that would put Singapore's ever-unsettled weather to shame, the spotlight on cars as safe sanctuaries has now been reopened, albeit from a public health lens. It's not just a locally situated trend too, but one that is reverberating worldwide, from Germany to China.

It's worth noting at this juncture that the notion of personal space is actually less abstract than one would expect, with an entire field of research going into quantifying and codifying this notion. For instance, most of us supposedly only allow people we already know within a 1 to 5 metre radius; any violation of this by strangers is supposed to be transient (although this varies across different cultures). 

The specific rules of social distancing have made us more conscious of our personal space than ever
The pandemic, however, is rewriting these rules of social distancing with even more explicitly prescribed ones. People are increasingly working from home, while general paranoia towards large and thick crowds has taken hold. Limits on group sizes have also been implemented intermittently, even for nuclear families. Meanwhile, narratives of unclean surfaces, 1.5 metre safety distancing, and theatrics of obsessive cleaning have pervaded our psyches. 

As we internalise these new social rules, our instincts are changing. Studies have shown that even in experiments involving avatars in virtual space, research subjects subconsciously maintained a further distance from each other than before the pandemic.

A recent article noted that local car buying habits are holding steady even though we are driving less
Back in the real world, a local article recently noted how car-buying in Singapore has remained robust even though the average driver now spends less time on the road than before. In tandem, ridership on our trains stands at 60% of its pre-pandemic level

It would be presumptuous to assign this trend to any single reason, but it's also not far-fetched to believe that those who can afford it prefer the car for reasons of safety. You don't have to second-guess who has touched your armrest or steering wheel the way you would an MRT pole, nor think about maintaining a distance from the people sitting around you since you already know them. 

Personal space and mobility post-pandemic  

Has the pandemic rescued the private passenger car?
While the weight of a changing transport scene seemed too much for the private passenger car to bear just a while ago, the pandemic may have just given it a lifeline by refreshing the valorisation of cars as personal spaces.

Against the fatigue-inducing fast rhythms of urban life, and against the uncontrollable and "invisible enemy" that is COVID, private mobility extends a reassuring and much-appreciated hand of visibility and control. It's two-fold now.

Scientists always note that humans are more flexible than we assume. In other words, our subconscious conceptions of "safe distancing" could dissipate as some semblance of our pre-pandemic lives returns. If so, the private passenger car may just fall out of grace again. There are already signs that public transport ridership elsewhere in the world is recovering, while car sharing companies are also innovating solutions to assuage sanitisation-related fears. 

It will probably take more time than initially envisioned to maximise the potential of shared transport modes
The huge question mark, however, is if that semblance will ever return. As latest evidence that it's impossible to pin down when the twists and turns of the pandemic will straighten out, the last two weeks have seen nations with high vaccination rates struggling with fresh waves of the virus. 

It's inevitable that the upward trajectory of shared modes of mobility will resume where it last left off... at some point. For the foreseeable future, however, they will continue to contend with our prevailing (rediscovered) love affair with our personal space - which, you may have noticed, is also colliding perfectly with public enrapturement by the impending generation of EVs. Maybe car-lite won't be coming so soon.

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pandemic  personal space  covid