GM, Ford studying how to make ventilators to fight COVID-19

Keith Laing Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Washington — At least two of Detroit's three automakers are studying the feasibility of producing vital medical equipment, such as ventilators, as the nation tries to combat the coronavirus pandemic, echoing the industry's conversion to building tanks, trucks and planes during World War II.

After announcing they both will temporarily suspend production amid coronavirus concerns, General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. confirmed Wednesday that they have been in contact with governments in the United States and United Kingdom about evaluating ways to produce the ventilators experts say doctors are expected to need to treat seriously ill coronavirus patients. 

General Motors CEO Mary Barra with President Donald Trump

"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.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday afternoon, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow floated the possibility of GM, one of the nation's largest manufacturers, potentially producing 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 two of the nation’s oldest manufacturers and legacies as cornerstones of the Arsenal of Democracy that helped win World War II, the involvement of GM, Ford and potentially other automotive players would be welcome reinforcements to combat rising caseloads in states around the country. 

The Trump administration had a turbulent relationship with automakers, dating back to Trump's inauguration in 2017. But this potential effort, both companies suggested, would transcend politics.

Trump has taken aim at the GM in the past for closing plants in politically important states, such as Michigan and Ohio, and moving production of vehicles such as the Chevrolet Blazer to Mexico. He has also chided Ford for rebuking his administration's effort to roll back gas-mileage standards by joining an agreement on mpg rules with California.

Early in his tenure, Trump appointed GM's Barra to a Strategy and Policy Forum. The group was later disbanded after controversial comments made by Trump in response to a white supremacy rally in Virginia in August 2017. 

But GM won plaudits from Trump for siding with him in a fight with California gas mileage that saw Ford and three other foreign-owned automakers strike a side deal with the Golden State.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing