(CNN)The ongoing spread of coronavirus has made disinfecting police vehicles a major issue. After the New York City Police Department asked for a better way to sanitize its vehicles, Ford created software that will burn the germs out of the police department’s SUVs, the company announced Wednesday.
With the new software, the Ford (F) Police Utility — a version of the Ford Explorer SUV — can use its engine along with the cabin ventilation system to raise interior temperatures to 133 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. That’s hot enough and long enough to kill more than 99% of disease causing germs in the vehicle, including the coronavirus, according to Ford.
In newer versions of the Police Utility, officers can initiate the process with a special series of presses on the vehicles’ cruise control buttons. In older models of the Police Utility, model years 2013 through 2015, the process can be started by a technician using a device plugged into the SUV’s electronic diagnostics port.
“You certainly don’t want it to be something that gets activated accidentally so it is a complicated enough cycle that you’d have to be paying attention to what you’re doing to, to get it to start,” said Bill Gubing, Ford’s director of passenger vehicles and SUVs.
Once the system is activated, the officer or technician then leaves the vehicle. The doors are locked automatically as the engine runs at an unusually high idle speed of around 2,000 RPM. That heats the engine coolant, which is then used to heat air that’s pumped into the cabin, raising the cabin temperature for 15 minutes.
Once the car has been kept hot for 15 minutes a cool down process begins. First, unheated outside air is pumped into the cabin, flushing out the hot air. Then the air conditioning is switched on to cool the cabin further.
This system is better than just cleaning the inside of the car with disinfectant spray because the heat permeates the entire occupant compartment. Germs are killed even in hard-to-reach areas and there’s no chance of any places being accidentally overlooked. Some special equipment installed by police departments could block the flow of hot air to all parts of the vehicle, though, a Ford spokesman said.
There are currently no safeguards to prevent the system from being turned on while a person or animal is inside the car, according to Ford. It’s up to the police officer or technician to make sure the vehicle is empty before the system starts. If any of the controls inside the car, such as the steering wheel, pedals or gear selector, are moved while the system is running, the process automatically stops.
Adding sensors to reliably detect people or animals inside the car would have caused delays in getting the system out to police cars in the field, Gubing said.
“We’ll continue to work with our agencies and get their feedback on how well it works and look at how we adjust if need be in the future,” he said. “But right now, for speed, it’s really officer or initiator dependent.”
The interior of the car won’t be harmed by the process, said Gubing. Even though 133 degrees is hot enough to kill viruses and bacteria, it’s still well below the 176 degrees, at which Ford vehicle interiors are routinely heat tested. That’s as hot as the interior of a closed vehicle can get on a summer day in the desert, he said.
The software is available to all police departments in the United States that use Ford Police Utilities. For now, the system is only being applied to Police Utility SUVs, Ford said, because they make up the majority of Ford police vehicles. The system may later be made available for police versions of Ford’s other trucks, vans and sedans.
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