General Motors and Ford are researching the possibility of revamping their plants from shuttered car manufacturing sites to actively building ventilators to help treat those sickened with Coronavirus.
The two automakers (FCA has not announced any intentions to switch its manufacturing) are in contact with both U.S. and UK governments about the possibility of building the life-saving medical equipment. From the Detroit News:
“Mary Barra was in contact with the administration today to provide an update on the decision to suspend production,” GM spokesman Jeannine Ginivan said in a statement confirming discussions between the company and the Trump administration.
“She also indicated GM is working to help find solutions for the nation during this difficult time and has offered to help, and we are already studying how we can potentially support production of medical equipment like ventilators.”
In a statement, Ford’s chief communications officer, Mark Truby, said: “As America’s largest producer of vehicles and top employer of autoworkers, Ford stands ready to help the administration in any way we can, including the possibility of producing ventilators and other equipment.
“We have had preliminary discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments and are looking into the feasibility. It’s vital that we all pull together to help the country weather this crisis and come out the other side stronger than ever.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk also said his company would make ventilators if need be:
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Though Musk also said the switch wouldn’t be seamless:
It should go without saying, but it’s not like you can just walk in and turn a dial on the robots from “CARS” to “VENTILATORS.”
But it’s important, as with everything he says these days, to take Musk with an enormous heaping earthmover’s bucket worth of salt. Musk hasn’t been reported to be in talks with governments about building ventilators, and expressed doubt that the illness is actually as serious as portrayed by health officials:
But Musk can doubt all he wants. It won’t change the fact that hospitals likely soon will be facing a ventilator shortage, as hospitals have in China and Italy already. The equipment is critical for Coronavirus patients unable to breathe on their own. New York alone may be short as many as 15,783 a week, according to the New York Times. While there is a national stockpile of ventilators, President Trump told a group of governors Monday that states were on their own, and they should not expect the federal government to help in that regard.
Nationally, as of this writing, 7,038 Americans have tested positive for the Coronavirus and 97 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control, though limited testing means the rate of infected Americans is most likely much higher.
The possible switch to ventilator manufacturing is somewhat reminiscent of World War II, when General Motors and Ford switched their car factories to building weapons of war. Back then, Detroit was known as the Arsenal of Democracy thanks to automakers’ efforts. But also back in the ‘40s, factory workers were protected from being drafted into the military. This virus has no such selectiveness and automakers’ previous attempts to adhere to CDC guidelines while keeping production running already proved insufficient, hence the shutdown in the first place.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow went on Fox News saying GM was considering recalling workers who had been put on a two-week break to help contain the virus in order to build ventilators.
I spoke with two of the three big three carmakers today, and they want to get going as soon as they can.
And actually one of them told me that even though the men and women may be off for two weeks due to the virus, she’s going to try to call them back so they can produce ventilators. And they might even ask them to do it on a voluntary basis for civic and patriotic reasons. That’s the kind of can-do spirit that we’re hearing and seeing.
As always, however, any statement coming from the current White House should be looked on with skepticism. Kudlow in particular is known for wildly off-the-mark predictions, ignoring reality, and just generally being insanely bad at his job, for decades. He’s known for saying no recession would come in 2007-2008, and is claiming no recession will occur now due to the virus, according to the Washington Post.
Kudlow was even telling people to “buy the dip” in the markets last week, just before stock markets hit multiple circuit breakers as the house of cards our economy is built on began to collapse.
Other manufacturers have already started the process of switching to ventilator manufacturing. In the UK, car and aerospace manufacturers in Britain, including McLaren and Nissan, are already working towards building ventilators for the National Health Service, according to Reuters:
The car companies are looking at how they could help with production of a simplified design of a ventilator, analyzing an existing model and looking at ways to develop a prototype quickly.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday urged manufacturers including Ford (F.N), Honda (7267.T) and Rolls Royce to help make health equipment including ventilators.
A second person familiar with the situation said hundreds of companies had responded to the call for help and were hoping to have a production plan in place soon.
While this possible move is well-intentioned, it’s not clear if automakers would be able to make a dent in the ventilator shortage. Building tanks in an auto plant is one thing, medical equipment manufacturing is quite a different animal. Anyone who has been on a dirty and dusty car manufacturer’s floor can easily spot the possible problems. Not only would factories have to be refitted with new technology and manufacturing capabilities, auto workers would need to be trained on those machines and be constantly tested for the virus themselves. There would be a need to keep everything as clean and germ-free as possible, a difficult prospect on a cavernous factory floor with potentially hundreds of hands involved in the work.
Unfortunately, auto manufacturers might have plenty of time to switch to ventilator production, as the spread of the illness shows no signs of slowing down in the United States and Europe.