The car that cleans itself—Nissan tests new model

If it's not winter's salt and grime, it's mud and everyday dirt. Keeping your car clean can be a chore—a backbreaking one if you prefer to do it yourself.

But Nissan is testing a car that can keep itself clean, thanks to special paints that repel water and oils. Similar technology could eventually allow manufacturers to do away with windshield wipers by fending off water and grime. Meanwhile, new coatings can also help keep a car's interior cleaner, something especially useful for parents—or those actively involved in sports like camping and trail biking.

Nissan Note
Source: Nissan

The Nissan Technical Centre in Switzerland is in the midst of testing a specially prepared version of the automaker's Note model for the European market. The subcompact hatchback has had a layer of a special coating, called Ultra-Ever Dry, applied over its conventional paint finish. Developed by UltraTech International, it repels oil and water.

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That means that most common dirt, grime and oil won't stick to the vehicle's sheet metal. The Ultra-Ever Dry finish even works with rain, frost and sleet, Nissan reported after preliminary testing.

"The Nissan Note has been carefully engineered to take the stress out of customer driving," said Geraldine Ingham, the chief marketing manager for the hatchback. "We are committed to addressing everyday problems our customers face and will always consider testing exciting, cutting edge technology like this incredible coating application."

For the moment, the automaker says it has no plans to offer the coating as a standard feature but "will continue to consider [it] as a future aftermarket option."

Nissan developed another innovative paint technology a few years back, a self-healing paint. Known as the Scratch Shield, it uses an elastic resin mixed into a conventional paint formulation that, when exposed to sunlight, fills in small scratches within hours. But few motorists have been willing to pay the premium for the special formulations, so the automaker now offers the technology in only a few markets—not including the U.S..

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Nissan isn't the only automaker looking at hydrophobic coatings—which could prove an interesting alternative for keeping windshields clear and clean. The Hidra concept car, designed by Leonardo Fioravanti, relies on both aerodynamic design to minimize what comes close to the windshield, and a special coating to keep things from sticking if they do come into contact with the glass.

Under a hydrophobic outer coat, a second layer "pushes" dirt off to the sides, while a third layer essentially helps clean off grime. An additional, electrically conductive layer provides the power needed to make it all work.

New York Auto Show
New York Auto Show

The designers claim the technology behind the Hidra wiperless windshield could prove reasonably cost-competitive and could wind up in production in a few years, marking the most significant improvement in rain gear since the first hand-operated wipers were introduced more than a century ago.

British sports carmaker McLaren, meanwhile, has lifted a page from fighter jet construction. It's experimenting with a system that uses high-frequency sound waves to create a sonic barrier that prevents water and dirt from reaching the windshield.

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Aside from cleanliness, automakers would like to eliminate the windshield wiper to remove the aerodynamic drag that reduces a vehicle's fuel economy.

Manufacturers also are looking at ways to keep things clean inside their vehicles. Most fabrics are now treated with dirt and liquid-resistant coatings—or can be ordered with an optional treatment package. Ford says it also tries to design vehicles so it's easy to wipe or vacuum food and spilled beverages out of cracks and crevices.

To that effect, the new Honda Odyssey minivan this year began offering an optional, built-in vacuum cleaner tucked into its rear cargo compartment.

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Of course, one challenge is preventing messes in the first place. General Motors has been conducting research on ways to keep passengers, especially children stuck in the back rows, known to industry engineers as "the puke zone," from getting carsick.

"We know through other scientific research that even if our eyes are focused on a fixed point—if we can see the outside passing by in the window—our brain is telling us that we are moving," explained Don Shreves, GM's human factors engineering group manager said. "But if our eyes are at a downward angle and do not see the view outside the vehicle, our bodies become sensitive to motion and increase the chance of sickness."

Among other things, the research has shown GM engineers that passengers are less likely to get sick when DVD screens are mounted overhead.