COVID-19 has changed how we work, how we interact, and, increasingly, how we use our cars.

In a roundtable session at the virtual CES 2021 , panelists said the pandemic has changed commuting patterns and consumer preferences – and that those shifts are here to stay.

According to a study led by the Center for Automotive Research, a majority of workers are not planning on returning to the office.

"Only about 20% are saying that they’re going to go back to full-time," said Carla Bailo, President and CEO of the Ann Arbor, MI-based research organization. Bailo joined three other automotive-industry professionals in the online discussion on Tuesday.

In fact, some employees have been getting their jobs done from their driveway.

"Honestly, the car has become an office for some people just so they can get away from the noise of their house," said Bailo. "The sound is great, and you can connect from anywhere."

As COVID-19 has disrupted day-to-day life and sent many employees away from their usual workplaces, the vehicle, for many, has become a kind of protective cocoon – a high-tech one these days, often equipped with premium audio, fast connections, and sometimes up to a dozen display screens.

Today’s cars feature high-quality sound from a variety of audio vendors, like Bang & Olufsen, Bose, and Bowers & Wilkens. The Revel Ultima 3D system in the Lincoln Aviator has 28 speakers placed throughout the SUV.

"You’re enabling home theater and audio experiences that you really you can’t find even in your home now," said Andrew Poliak, CTO at Panasonic Automotive, in the virtual session.

The car has become a kind of preferred "second space," said Poliak – a location that has surpassed the traditional workplace in importance.

COVID-19 has led to a distrust and decline in public transportation and air travel among many consumers, making the car an important, protected kind of bubble.

"If you're in a car, that's a safe place," said Christiane Zorn, Senior Director of Product Marketing at AUDI AG.

And when the vehicle is your next-favorite place after your home, you want to know more about the features inside it.

In the past, consumers made sure to take a test-drive before making any buying decisions. Increasingly, new drivers are more concerned with connectivity and infotainment features than how the car actually moves.

"Our data shows that almost 25 percent of people aren’t even driving the car before they buy it," said Bailo, "but they do want to make sure it has Apple CarPlay and everything else they need to connect."

With the vehicle taking on a central, "second-place" role for consumers, the CES 2021 panelists emphasized an opportunity for manufacturers to provide a customized experience for specific drivers, to help customers make the car their own.

Through sophisticated software, OEMs can provide updates over the air (OTA), keeping the car equipped with the latest features, like preferred diagnostics and applications.

OEMs are able to add features post-sale, even seasonally. An over-the-air update, for example, could allow a buyer to purchase high-grade LED lighting effects for the dark winter, but not in the summer.

"You can buy a used a car, and you can still upgrade it, so no matter what the previous owner was ordering for it, you can still make it your car,” said Zorn.

As vehicles becomes more software-intensive, OEMs may be able to offer a kind of baseline suspension, for example, and then added levels of suspension tuning, chosen by the user and delivered via OTA. Similar updates could someday be made with engine power and transmission tuning.

Or think Tesla, which offers various levels of “Full Self Driving” from its automated-driving system. The extra capability is available via OTA.

Customization opportunities continue with the interface. Vehicles have to provide a variety of ways for drivers to engage with the car, from speech to touch.

Manufacturers must be able to adapt to how customer wants to use their vehicle, whether they're on the road or in their driveway.

"Not every customer wants to interact with a car in the same way," said Zorn. "This will be the big topic in the future, because it will make the car a more personal device."