The coronavirus pandemic has affected all facets of life and instituted a new world order governed by the need for social distancing. With restricted movement expected to continue in the foreseeable future, there are justifiable concerns regarding travel and vehicle ownership. To help you cope with the ‘new normal’, we set out to demystify some of the most pertinent motoring questions.

Should you switch from public to private transport?

As coronavirus continues to spread unabated, it is highly recommended to cut down on all non-essential travel. However, when stepping outside the confines of your homes is unavoidable, it is best to opt for personal mobility and reduce dependence on public transport and shared mobility. Despite the promise of regular sanitation of mass transit, social distancing is a tricky thing to practise in a crowd, thereby sharply increasing the odds of community transmission. Travelling in your own private space keeps the risk to a minimum.

Even plastic curtains to segregate cabin don’t allay fear of travelling in shared cars.

The COVID-19 situation has put the brakes on shared transportation that had witnessed substantial growth over the years and was touted to challenge the concept of vehicle ownership in the long run. Recent surveys and reports show an increasing number of people are willing to sacrifice convenience for safety and use private vehicles instead. Owners returning en masse to their cars could exacerbate our already congested roads, though, a greater adoption of work-from-home measures could make all the difference.

Is it safe to drive a car now?

Driving your own set of wheels is the safest form of transportation to minimise the odds of contracting the virus since it effectively cuts down your social interaction. However, there is no room for complacency. Even in your own car you must follow personal hygiene, and that includes washing your hands before and after a drive, as well as sanitising frequent touchpoints like door handles, the steering wheel and the gear knob. And while it might not be feasible to travel alone all the time, it’s best to advise your co-passengers to refrain from operating the air con controls and touchscreen.

A personal car is your safe haven but take precautions.

Of course, keep abreast of the latest government notifications with respect to vehicle use. The authorities might restrict access to certain areas or have a cap on the number of occupants in a vehicle. Avoid travelling if it’s not permitted.

Is it an appropriate time for buying a car?

A global pandemic, with no end in sight, has taken its toll on buyer sentiment. The uncertainty of the situation has forced many to either postpone or altogether cancel their buying decisions, while others are going ahead with their purchases with reduced budgets. At the same time, there are also many who are scouting for a vehicle to minimise reliance on public transportation. Consequently, there’s the expectation of an uptick in demand towards the budget end of the market, including twowheelers, used cars and affordable new cars.

For those considering a new set of wheels, this is as good a time as any to buy, though the expectation of hefty discounts would be slightly misplaced. A drop in market demand has been accompanied by a reduction in supply, as manufacturing plants are slowly getting back on track after a prolonged lockdown, reducing the need for dealers to push out stock through aggressive discounting.

Carmakers across the board are aiming to overcome the slump in demand by offering attractive finance schemes. Deferment of repayment by a few months after vehicle purchase, longer term loans allowing lower EMIs and even loan deferment in case of a job loss are some of the offers extended by carmakers. Prospective buyers should make the most of such initiatives as these were hard to come by in the pre-pandemic era.

Would it be more prudent to buy a used car, or even subscribe?

Pre-owned cars can provide a greater value-for-money proposition, especially during times of economic uncertainty. Moreover, BS6 has resulted in a significant mark-up in prices, thereby widening the gap between used (BS4) cars and new (BS6) ones. So those on a tighter budget would find it worthwhile to look at the used car market.

The case for a personal car has never been stronger. Used cars offer great value.

People who expect the shift in their mobility needs to last only as long as the coronavirus pandemic should consider the option of subscribing to a vehicle. An annual or monthly subscription plan from service providers like Zoomcar, Myles and Revv would not only eliminate the pressure of a hefty down payment, but would also prevent a customer from being saddled with a long-term economic burden. The only caveat is that the subscriber should financially be in a position to honour the monthly fee.

How to minimise contact during vehicle purchase?

Almost all carmakers today have digital sales portals for buyers to complete most of the processes online, thus eliminating the need for visiting a showroom. Dealers have even begun delivering cars right at the customers’ doorstep.

Car buying has changed dramatically over the past few months.

While this initiative may otherwise feel seamless, it does have a few drawbacks. Despite the majority of the steps being completed online, including booking, vehicle selection and full payment, customers might be required to physically sign off on some formalities, though the same can be completed at their residence. Furthermore, an online deal could also deprive a customer the chance of bargaining with the dealership for a better offer. Some carmakers like Hyundai have, however, built this essential facet of physical buying into their one stop online systems with some leeway on the list price.

 

Furthering the automakers’ attempt of ensuring a contactless experience are a few banks like ICICI and HDFC, which offer online and instant loan approval facilities for their selected ‘pre-approved customers’, thus doing away with the need for the lessee physically visiting a bank branch.

Can there be delays in vehicle deliveries?

Car manufacture has resumed but output is limited.

The nationwide lockdown came at a time when the Indian auto industry was in the final stages of the switch to BS6, when carmakers were looking to clear BS4 stock and maintain a lean inventory. Furthermore, manufacturing at plants restarted only in May when shutdown restrictions were partially lifted. However, stringent social distancing guidelines, manpower shortages and subdued demand have meant that automakers and suppliers are still running production lines below capacity. Consequently, the demand for a particular model that is not part of a dealer’s depleted stockpile will attract a waiting period of at least a few weeks.

Could a new car be carrying the coronavirus?

There are chances that surfaces in a new car may have been contaminated by the virus, if it was handled by an infected person. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine has found the novel coronavirus to survive on steel and plastic surfaces, of which there are many in a vehicle, for as long as 72 hours, though at low levels. While it still remains up for debate how infectious these contaminated surfaces are, it is advisable to disinfect them nonetheless.

Thorough sanitisation is now part of the pre-delivery checklist.

The good news is that all auto companies have identified this area of concern and have introduced measures for disinfecting vehicles prior to delivery. Even the display cars in dealerships and test-drive vehicles are being subjected to similar procedures. Such efforts should help abate the fear in new car buyers.

What should be done if you can no longer afford your car EMIs?

The pandemic has severely impacted the economy, with pay cuts and job losses becoming an unfortunate reality. Consequently, keeping up with EMIs of car loans might just have gotten that much harder for some. If you are facing troubles in making timely repayments, then it is highly recommended not to default on the loan as this can attract additional obligations and even affect your credit score. It is better to opt for a moratorium instead.

Back in March, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had authorised banks to offer a moratorium of up to three months (March 1-May 31) on term loans. The central bank recently extended the moratorium facility for another three months (June 1-August 31).

It is worth noting that the moratorium is not a waiver, but simply a deferment of dues. The interest accrued for the moratorium period still has to be paid, which ultimately drives up the cumulative amount of repayment. As such, there is no real benefit in availing the facility if you are not having cash flow problems and are able to keep up with your EMIs.

How does one stay safe at fuel/EV charging station?

Social distancing is a key tool in the fight against coronavirus, and is something that should be practised in all scenarios, including refuelling. Keep a safe distance from the pump attendant and minimise interactions further by making payments digitally. It is also a good idea to fill up the tank to maximum capacity in order to cut down on the number of trips to the fuel station.

Minimise visits to the fuel pump by tanking-up to capacity.

EV owners have it a bit easier. In fact, those with the option to charge at home need not venture out to keep their cars juiced up. Given that most public charging stations are self-service facilities also helps the cause of social distancing. However, that does shift the focus on personal hygiene, considering owners will be required to handle the electric chargers themselves. To avoid risk of infection, be sure to sanitise your hands before and after dealing with the keypad and charging gun.

How can you get your vehicle serviced safely?

In response to the ongoing health crisis, carmakers have expanded their efforts at extending contactless service schemes. Companies like Maruti Suzuki and Tata are offering service-on-wheels facilities for providing (free and paid) periodic maintenance services right at the customer’s location. All auto majors now allow car owners to book service time slots online and avail pick-up and drop facilities, thus doing away with the need for visiting a workshop.

Don’t put off vehicle service. Carmakers have altered SOPs for maximum safety.

Efforts for ensuring hygiene have also been stepped up. All brands are implementing strict sanitisation measures before handing over the vehicles to the owners. Some are going a step further by covering touchpoints like the steering wheel, gear lever and driver’s seat with plastic covers, which are disposed at the end of the service.

Regular maintenance work is a must and should not be avoided. Customers can avail of the contactless initiatives to access services conveniently, all the while minimising chances of transmission.

What can you do in case your car breaks down?

With lockdown restrictions being eased in many parts of the country and vehicles now back on the roads, a rise in the number of breakdowns is expected as well. Some owners could report issues caused by prolonged disuse of their cars during the shutdown.

Cognizant of the potential issues, car companies already have their roadside assistance (RSA) services in place, with many even offering the facilities during the lockdown. As such, customers dealing with breakdowns can take the assistance of the automakers’ RSA, similar to the pre-COVID era.

What can you do if your vehicle and driving documents expired during the lockdown?

Though keeping documents such as driving licences, vehicle registrations, permits and vehicle fitness certificates up-to-date is crucial to avoid punitive action, those whose records were set to expire during the lockdown have got a breather. The government initially extended the validity of vehicle and driving documents expiring between February 1 and June 30, 2020, to the end of June. This deadline was then revised to September 30, 2020.

Make the most of online options such as for renewal of vehicle insurance.

With restrictions being eased and regional transport offices (RTOs) across the country commencing operations, people can now get their documents renewed. Vehicle registrations, driving tests and issuance of fresh licences have also begun at the RTOs. However, be prepared to face longer waiting times with the department operating at limited capacity to honour social distancing regulations.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy toll and altered the very foundations of our way of life. In a matter of months, all stakeholders in the auto industry have been compelled to reinvent processes around the principles of social distancing, personal hygiene and contactless operations. With the various safety measures now in place, it is time we learn to move on with our lives and coexist with the disease. No matter what, the wheels must keep turning.

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