Dave Lester dreams of the day when Americans appreciate the value of clean air inside their vehicles.
European and Asian consumers already understand the need for cabin air filters (CAFs) and generally demand them on even entry-level subcompacts.
As a result, about 95% of new vehicles in Europe are sold with CAFs, compared with 80% in Asia, estimates Lester, general manager-automotive for MicronAir Filtration, a division of Freudenberg Nonwovens Filtration Div.
In the U.S., CAFs appear in about 40% of new vehicles, most of them Asian or European brands, although a few have been available on Detroit models for more than a decade, Lester says.
In a region where diesels are the powertrain of choice, concerns about soot is a key driver for European interest in CAFs, which sift out pollutants as outside air is drawn into the vehicle's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. “Everyone in Europe goes to replace their cabin air filters once or twice a year,” Lester says.
In the U.S. however, consumers — and even car enthusiasts — know little about the devices, and dealers do a poor job educating customers about them, Lester says.
It is too simplistic to say U.S.-based auto makers leave cabin air filters off of new-vehicle programs purely as a way to keep costs down. For proof, Lester points to certain entry-level small cars equipped with CAFs, while expensive fullsize SUVs from the same auto maker go without.
The oldTaurus, for example, had a CAF from 1996 until vehicle production ended last year, but the new Five Hundred sedan (now renamed the new Taurus) does not.
Lester says he spoke withabout sourcing for the Five Hundred program. “The company's response was, ‘Why should we put it on the car if the consumer doesn't know about it?’” he says.
Despite these inconsistencies, Lester says MicronAir had its best year in 2006, when aftermarket CAF sales jumped 28% in North America and OEM sales rose 5%. MicronAir claims to lead the sector for CAFs in North America, with more than 60% of the OEM market and 40% of the aftermarket.
Although volumes are potentially higher on the OEM side of the fence, Lester says the more important sector is the aftermarket, where there is potential to educate consumers about the benefits of clean cabin air. Plus, aftermarket profits are higher.
Research has shown cabin air contains six times more contaminants than outside air, Lester says.
CAFs first arrived in 1996 as a 3-layer, non-woven, particle filter designed to capture road soot, dust, pollen and allergens before they reach the cabin.
Today, auto makers have the option of choosing combination filters that add a layer of carbon to trap unpleasant odors entering through the HVAC air stream, such as the smell of manure, as well as others inside.
The problem with combination filters is they generally are at least twice as expensive as simple particle CAFs. Retailers often sell particle filters on the aftermarket for $15, compared with $30 for combination filters, Lester says.
The300 sedan had a carbon-based CAF on board when it was introduced in '05. Last year, however, Chrysler switched to the less expensive particle filter, Lester says.