The role of the automobile has been reinvented in the coronavirus era. Once just a way of getting from one place to another, the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time.
It took a pandemic to give the automobile its new role. When people pack up their families and friends, they can still adhere to social distancing rules. They remain under a roof, within closed doors, sealed off and separated from the rest of their fellow human beings.
Mobile safe distancing has generated a new way of life — a society on wheels.
The trend has transformed communities and businesses. Drive-in theaters are experiencing renewed interest. People picnic from sedans and pickup trucks. Birthdays, baby showers and graduations are celebrated by waving through windows.
Gossip is conducted on roadsides. Drivers who would normally speed by each other in isolation are bringing their cars to a standstill, using them for kaffeeklatsches.
“They are like the ultimate P.P.E. — you can really seal yourself into them,” said Peter D. Norton, an associate professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who studies the history of technology.
There are curbside pickups of groceries, hardware and toilet paper. Moviegoers starved for a little fresh air can hitch up to an old-fashioned listening device at a newly refurbished drive-in theater. Laundromats are taking in bundles handed off through car windows.
Do the new pandemic rules mean this is a turning point in society’s relationship with the automobile, or just an extension of it?
“I think there are some continuities here,” Dr. Norton said, noting that cars have long been thought of as a way to shield ourselves from a hostile world.
“There is the old cliché of the white suburbanite in what they think of as a dangerous neighborhood: They roll up their windows and lock their doors,” he said.
“In most cases, it is a response to a perceived danger,” he said. But there are also troubling implications, he added. One is that “safety is something we expect you to buy in the form of an expensive machine that is not sustainable and not affordable to everyone.”
While much of life has been reimagined online, from conference calls to Zoom video chats with grandparents, vehicles have allowed people to trim several degrees from that virtual separation.
Cars have allowed their owners to widen their worlds. Quarantine zones can be uprooted from the four walls of a home and transplanted within the doors of a car.
That means people can have more contact — but not too much more. That slight relaxation of the distancing, while still protective, has been essential to small businesses that rely on cultivating personal relationships with clients.
Christine Pontiff, the owner of Alternatives Hair Salon in Lafayette, La., had built up a roster of loyal customers over her three decades in business. When the pandemic hit, she was unable to do hair on the premises, so she mixed custom potions for drive-up customers after taking a look at recent photographs of them.
“We would have them order the color kit and call 10 to 15 minutes ahead of time, so we could have it mixed, and we run out and give it to them with instructions,” she said.
“They drove up with masks and we had masks and gloves,” she said. “There were no mishaps.”
Events normally held in buildings have now been shifted to the great outdoors. That is what happened at a fair hosted by the Artists Association of Nantucket in Massachusetts, where a 120-foot-long parking lot was reimagined as a gallery this month.
It was watercolors through windows, art on asphalt. The rule still was look, don’t touch, but thanks to their cars, dozens of art lovers and potential buyers got close enough. They paused, idled and inched along in low gear through the drive-by collection of work. (Ceramics were not displayed because of the risks of an errant bump.)
“One of the difficulties is, with art anyway, people like to see it,” Robert Frazier, the association’s artistic director, said. “They have to get a visual feel.”
Sales took place later, online.
Large gatherings are not permitted under stay-at-home orders in many states and countries, but some churches have been able to conduct services that cater to worshipers in their cars. The Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville, Ohio, calls it “Come as you are, but stay in your car.”
The church offers at least two avenues for worshipers — they can stream the service online or drive up and park.
“Is anyone here today for the very first time, will you toot your horn?” the pastor, Frank Carl, said during a May 17 sermon. He was speaking from a scissor-lift platform customarily used by construction workers to tower over the parking lot.
A few car horns sounded.
“Now Genoa, let’s make them feel welcome!” he said, and the rest of the faithful pressed their car horns in unison.
In an interview, Pastor Carl said he started delivering parking lot sermons on March 15, and was considering adding a fourth Sunday sermon because they have become so popular. The parking lot holds 600 cars, he said, and sometimes there are more spilling over onto the street.
“For families with younger children, they feel like they have been out of their house,” he said. “They feel like they have gone somewhere, even though they can’t get out and mingle.”
“Sometimes there are cars parked around the building where they can’t even see me but they can hear it,” he said. “People come together, but separate, in cars. There is an emotional and social element that is being filled this way.”