The team simulated a car loosely based on a Toyota Prius driving at 50 miles per hour, with two occupants: a driver in the front left seat and a single passenger in the back right, a seating arrangement that is common in taxis and ride shares and that maximizes social distancing. In their initial analysis, the researchers found that the way the air flows around the outside of the moving car creates a pressure gradient inside the car, with the air pressure in the front slightly lower than the air pressure in the back. As a result, air circulating inside the cabin tends to flow from the back of the car to the front.

Next, they modeled the interior air flow — and the movement of simulated aerosols — when different combinations of windows were open or closed. (The air-conditioning was on in all scenarios.) Unsurprisingly, they found that the ventilation rate was lowest when all four windows were closed. In this scenario, roughly 8 to 10 percent of aerosols exhaled by one of the car’s occupants could reach the other person, the simulation suggested. When all the windows were completely open, on the other hand, ventilation rates soared, and the influx of fresh air flushed many of the airborne particles out of the car; just 0.2 to 2 percent of the simulated aerosols traveled between driver and passenger.