Doctors in Germany prep for the coming influx of COVID-19 patients.
Doctors in Germany prep for the coming influx of COVID-19 patients.
Photo: Getty Images

It’s not as easy as flipping a switch, Penske stretched thin, and Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, of course, gets its own special exemption. All that and more in the Morning Shift for March 30, 2020.

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1st Gear: Here We Go

First General Motors said it was partnering with a ventilator company to make ventilators for the ongoing Coronavirus epidemic, then President Donald Trump ordered GM to make ventilators to which it basically replied “yes, that is what we are already doing, thanks for the input,” and now we have a timeline.

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I’ve said this before, but sadly, it’s not as easy as flipping a giant switch in the factory from “CARS” to “VENTILATORS.” Whole assembly lines need to be re-tooled, and workers need to be re-trained.

But GM is doing it. It recalled 1,000 workers last week to its Kokomo, Indiana plant that normally manufactures automotive electronics, and will start churning out ventilators in about two weeks, a company executive told Reuters:

GM’s manufacturing chief, Gerald Johnson, told Reuters the company aims to produce 10,000 ventilators a month by summer.

“No later than mid-April we expect to be up and running ventilators,” Johnson said, noting the ventilators will need U.S. regulatory approval, significant testing and that the company must train over 1,000 workers to assemble them.

Despite President Trump’s public accusations that the company is overcharging for the Ventec-designed ventilators, GM says that it is producing them “at cost.”

The New York Times has a pretty interesting account from inside GM about the rush to get ventilator manufacturing going:

The day after Ms. Barra spoke to Stop the Spread, G.M. and the other two large U.S. automakers said they would shut down plants to until at least March 30.

The following day, Phil Kienle, G.M.’s head of manufacturing for North America, and a few other executives flew to Ventec’s headquarters in Bothell, Wash. Early on Friday, March 20, the G.M. team sat down with Ventec executives to learn how the ventilators are made, and what parts are required. Ventec had already started a push to ramp up production to 1,000 a month. The group concluded that with G.M.’s resources, 20,000 a month would be possible, four people familiar with the talks said.

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Other companies, like Ford and Toyota in the United States, and Nissan and McLaren in the United Kingdom, are planning to produce ventilators as well.

2nd Gear: Penske In Trouble

The Penske Corporation doesn’t just own IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s a vast conglomerate that also owns companies like dealerships and trucking operations, and employs 60,000 people.

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But hurt by the Coronavirus economic depression, senior executives are slashing their own pay as they begin to plot out layoffs, Autoweek says:

The memo said Penske and company president Rob Kurnick will forfeit 100 percent of their salaries throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. The Penske Corporation board of directors has also waived its cash compensation for the next six months.

In the letter, the company reported a “very low” number of employees afflicted with the novel coronavirus.

All Penske Corporation entities in the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain have been shut down. In Germany and Australia, sales operations are closed. The service/parts facilities remain open, but their business has declined as a result of the shutdown.

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NASCAR has also asked its senior employees to take a 25 percent pay cut, Autoweek added.

3rd Gear: Ford Service Turns To Social Distancing

It can be hard to get customers to walk into dealerships these days in general, let alone to get them to walk in for service appointments, have their car get worked on and then the customers themselves sit in an awkward and stuffy waiting room for 127 hours while they all cough on each other.

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Ford knows this, and knows the problem is especially acute with health care workers who can’t exactly get to a dealership these days, but still need their cars to get around and care for people. Accordingly, many dealerships are now sending their mechanics off into the world, according to Automotive News:

When the lab called inquiring how to quickly service their vehicles, dealer principal Bill Knight gathered two technicians and two service managers and drove to the lab’s offices.

The crew was able to change oil, rotate tires and swap in new air filters on all eight EcoSports in about three hours on a Saturday, while taking precautions with gloves, goggles and disinfecting materials as they were working on the vehicles.

“This is what we’re here for,” Knight told Automotive News. “The van really added a lot of energy to the team when we realized we could do something to help. It really gave us purpose.”

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I know other companies do this a bit, but frankly I’m stumped as to why this isn’t more of a thing, global pandemic or no. Yeah, a lot of work for a car might need specialized heavy equipment, like a lift, but a lot of it doesn’t. If I’ve got nothing to do, bumming around an auto shop can be fascinating.

But if I’m busy, or if you’re not really a car person?

It’s so much better to just be sent a Professional Driveway Mechanic.

4th Gear: Blue Origin Declared ‘Essential’

Mechanics? Essential. Grocery stores? Essential. Liquor stores? Essential.

Rocket ships? Also essential, according to the Financial Times:

In 2018, Blue Origin was one of three providers to win a contract with the US Air Force, receiving $500m to develop its New Glenn reusable rocket system.

“Our work on New Glenn and all its engines will have a direct impact on our country’s national security in the future,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told the Financial Times, adding that some employees had been able to shift to remote working.

“We share resources across all of our programmes and act as one team — both directly as members of Team Blue or indirectly as part of our supply base. We work together on all that we do and it would be counter-productive to separate that.”

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Blue Origin is owned and backed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and though it’s surely definitely probably maybe unrelated, it’s now been declared an “essential” business by the government, and its workers must report in.

If outer space even EXISTS when this is all over:

However experts warn that the coronavirus outbreak could have a long-lasting impact on space exploration, pushing back major missions by months or even years if launch windows are missed.

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(Space will still exist.)

5th Gear: The Mustang Mach-E Is Being Developed From Home

I’m working from home, you’re working from home, everyone’s working from home (okay, not Blue Origin employees). That means the engineers developing the Mustang Mach E, the new Ford electric car, are also working from home. And that means instead of testing the thing on carefully shrouded proving grounds, sometimes they’re tested with a spin around the block, the Detroit News reports:

Although it might be difficult to run the vehicles in certain scenarios to test suspensions and braking systems, the development team is able to test their electronic architecture and software to ensure all the parts are working properly and reliably. With remote access to most of their usual tools, the developers say they can do almost everything they normally would. Team members took home prototype vehicles to test and from which to gather data.

“If there is a different calibration we want to try, I will jump into the vehicle, the flash goes in, I will take the car around the block, come back, look at the data, and see how things reacted,” said Aleyna Kapur, a Mach-E calibrator who works to ensure the hardware, powertrain and software are all communicating with each other. “Maybe I’ll get back in the vehicle, tweak a few things, and come back to the desk. It’s right there.”

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It’s remarkable what we can get done without going into some stuffy, poorly-lit office.

Reverse: Bring It Back

The USA Grand Prix (West) at Long Beach California was again marred by accidents and retirements but Nelson Piquet from pole cruised to his first win; he also recorded the fastest lap. 

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Neutral: How Are You Treating Your Car?

With nowhere to go, it’s hard to keep enough miles on your car these days. How are you making sure your car stays in good shape?

Deputy Editor, Jalopnik. 2002 Lexus IS300 Sportcross.

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