Don’t judge me too harshly, armchair thesauri, as I use the word “unprecedented” to describe the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the automobile industry. One is certainly in respectable company, as just about every other denizen of modern media has lately reached for this now absurdly hackneyed descriptor, one, two, three times, or more. And who can blame us? It’s true. The business, cultural, environmental, and driving-fun dimensions of car-dom are changing in ways few could have imagined, a dramatic portent for all things automotive.

With nearly 15 percent of the country unemployed and the future of entire industries in grave danger, new-car sales—usually considered a reliable bellwether of the American economy—have tanked. Many car dealerships, already under assault by the Internet of Things, are either going belly up or getting placed in medically induced comas, with socially distant sales and service work generating but a fraction of the income they spun scant weeks ago.

If You Build It, They Won’t Come

If anyone’s more depressed than car dealers, it’s car manufacturers. Perennial best-seller Toyota’s sales were down 55.7 percent in April, for instance. Subaru, after an extraordinary run of 11 consecutive annual-sales records in the U.S., reported a 46.6 percent decline, which mirrors the declines at G.M., Ford, and F.C.A., who also had down months. Most dealers are understandably loath to load up on new product, and even if they’d like to, factories have closed, meaning cars people desperately want are in short supply.

Demand and supply will likely stabilize at some point. In the meantime, screaming deals on some new cars abound. However, the effects of this particular crisis are quite different than those of, say, 9/11.

In the wake of a terrorist attack, American car-makers were able to spark an S.U.V. sale-a-thon frenzy, in part by popularizing phrases like “zero-zero-zero” (no money down, interest rates of 0 percent, and monthly payments waived for up to the first 12 months of extra-long 72-month loan terms). Millions of Americans took the bait and armed themselves with large, menacing, and strikingly profitable to build S.U.V.’s, sparing mismanaged domestic car-makers’ skins long enough for them to stumble into the embarrassing bankruptcies and near wipeouts of 2009, when incomes fell and gas prices rose.

Today, all the financing tricks in the world—including unusually lengthy 84-month car loans—don’t seem to be having the desired effect. Lost revenue and vanished profits ordinarily spell consolidation in industry, and there’s no reason to expect that plenty of dealers and even some car companies won’t go under or wind up with new owners. Look for a spirited game of corporate musical chairs ahead.

What on Earth …

Still, amid all the gloom, car-makers may find hope in the pandemic for one thing they really know how to do: build gasoline-engine cars. Cheap gas never hurts their enterprise. And while there have been many anecdotal reports on the unusually clear skies over American cities with the beaching of so many of the nation’s cars and airplanes, the reduced levels of air pollution are not as dramatic as one might have hoped in the area of ozone reduction. According to a study done by NPR, traffic was down 40 percent nationwide, but overall ozone pollution decreased only slightly—no more than 15 percent—compared with levels of the past five years.

The coronavirus pandemic has left even the busiest of thoroughfares, such as New Bond Street in London, virtually deserted.

While any reduction in this lung-compromising pollutant is to be applauded, one fears car-makers may now rejoin the oil industry in its self-pitying, untruthful lament: We’re not so bad. Any serious effort to reduce levels of dangerous pollutants would address these gross polluters as essential elements of a national anti-pollution effort, along with the negative impact of conventional oil drilling and its wicked dirty sister, fracking. With the current administration of petroleum-garglers in place, one isn’t optimistic.

One fears car-makers may now rejoin the oil industry in its self-pitying, untruthful lament: We’re not so bad.

Perhaps even more troubling for advocates of reducing pollution, an overwhelming number of new-car purchasers now believe they’re buying a safe space. According to the global consulting firm Capgemini, three-quarters of new-car buyers report managing their hygiene as an important consideration in deciding on a purchase. At the same time, a higher than usual 45 percent of those surveyed under the age of 35 say they’re considering buying a new car before the year is out. Worse still, a distressing 46 percent of respondents expect to cut their mass-transit use, driving their cars more often than before. The just reopened New York Stock Exchange announced that workers won’t be allowed to enter its premises if they traveled there using mass transit.

The news is equally bad for ride-sharing services, with the survey indicating that at least 40 percent of people will use ride-sharing services less often, owing to sanitary concerns. Meanwhile Hertz, the car-rental company and granddaddy of car sharing, has filed for bankruptcy protection.

Some of these developments might seem good omens for the future of safer, greener cars. But their progress is hobbled by social-distancing requirements, and it wouldn’t exactly be shocking if some car companies have taken the occasion of the pandemic to cancel, postpone, or reduce their funding of electric- and autonomous-vehicle programs. Meaning we’re more or less back to where we were before, with an improved but hardly perfect breed of thirsty, high-riding S.U.V.’s. Clean vehicles remain off in the distance, just out of reach, and mass transit has fallen even further behind.

The Rules of the Road

But what, as I like to say, about me? For reasons unknown, automotive journalism has been deemed an essential service during lockdown. And in fact, the pandemic has ushered in an eerie but golden age of motoring, largely due to reduced traffic. Feast your eyes, too, on the vehicles I’ve had the pleasure of rolling down open roads these last eight weeks: an Aston Martin DB11 V8, a Ferrari F8 Tributo, the new and surprisingly sporty Toyota Supra, the bargain-priced luxury barge Genesis G90, the always sweet Mazda Miata, and the Lamborghini Urus, corporate parent Volkswagen’s latest bid to build the world’s most profitable S.U.V. Its starting price of $211,321 is a pleasing multiple of the $69,195 point of entry for Audi’s Q8, the car upon which it is based. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Volkswagen’s new, larger Tiguan sport ute surprised and delighted with a thrifty 29 miles per gallon in highway driving.

I would be a liar if I didn’t concede that these months of hassle-free car-testing likely owed something to the police’s reluctance to talk to motorists up close and personal. How else to explain the state trooper I passed going 95 miles per hour in a black Ferrari on an unnamed interstate? It was too late to slow down when I noticed him, but far from firing up his light show and pulling me over, he merely stared back with a sneer that seemed to mutter, “Just go away.”

How else to explain the state trooper I passed going 95 miles per hour in a black Ferrari on an unnamed interstate?

The road was wide open that day, a reflection of the reduced miles Americans drove in March, down 18.6 percent from March 2019. But in the same period, the death rate of 1.22 per hundred million miles was a big step up from 1.07 per hundred million miles the previous year. Evidently, some took the reduced police presence as an occasion for spectacularly dangerous driving. Thanks to such miscreants and the eternal need for additional revenue, the crackdown has already begun.

Turns out, there may never have been a better time to drive fast. But not unlike the automobile industry we thought we knew: it couldn’t last forever.

Jamie Kitman is a car columnist for AIR MAIL