GM delays mid-cycle vehicle updates due to pandemic disruption

Breana Noble Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. directed suppliers to stop preparations for mid-cycle updates of trucks, SUVs and sports cars as the automaker delays them until the 2021 calendar year because of the pandemic disruption, according to a note obtained by The Detroit News.

The delay is another signal of the pressure the industry is under to conserve cash as it idles manufacturing plants and faces uncertainty of when customers will return to dealerships. The Trump administration this week extended social-distancing guidelines through the end of April as medical consultants suggested U.S. deaths related to COVID-19 could be higher than 100,000. Carmakers have taken out billions in loans, halted development programs and even postponed portions of workers' salaries.

GM has delayed the planned mid-cycle refresh of the Chevrolet Silverado and other vehicles as it attempts to conserve cash during the downturn caused by COVID-19.

"The interruption this causes has rippled through not only the industry, but both supply and demand volumes," said Jeff Schuster, president of global vehicle forecasting at LMC Automotive. "It will absolutely impact product programs and future investments."

GM is urging its suppliers to stop work on tooling and parts manufacturing ahead of the planned mid-cycle refresh of the light-duty Chevrolet Silverado, its top-selling vehicle, and GMC Sierra trucks, according to the note to suppliers which was confirmed by GM. The direction also affects the GMC Terrain SUV as well as Chevrolet Equinox and Traverse SUVs, Bolt electric car and Camaro sports car. A future variant of the Chevrolet Corvette that was not slotted for 2020 also will be delayed.

"All our development teams around the globe are looking for opportunities to conserve resources by adjusting program timing and deferring spending," GM said in a statement.

Near-term programs, however, will see little to no impact, the company added. That includes its full-size SUVs and its electric-vehicle portfolio with the larger Bolt EUV, GMC Hummer truck, Cadillac Lyriq SUV, self-driving Cruise Origin shuttle and Ultium battery program.

Automakers, meanwhile, have not altered their plans to resume manufacturing in the coming weeks. The Trump administration extended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines until April 30. They recommend against gatherings larger than 10 people, urge older people and anyone with existing health problems to stay home, and suggest working at home when possible.

"We are continuing to assess public health conditions as well as supplier readiness and will adjust our plans if necessary," Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Kelli Felker said in an email.

Ford plans to resume production at Hermosillo Assembly in Mexico on April 6 and at select U.S. facilities, including Dearborn Truck, on April 14. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV also is monitoring the situation. Its Canada and U.S. manufacturing plants will remain closed until April 14.

Both companies referred to stay-at-home orders implemented in states where they manufacture vehicles as reasons for the target restart dates. One in 3 Americans remain under state or local government orders to stay at home. Michigan's order, which only allows essential businesses to continue to operate, goes through April 13. But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday indicated that it could be weeks before the state sees a peak in cases. The United Auto Workers previously expressed "concern and caution" over the automakers' plans.

GM has not provided a "magic date" for when production will restart, company spokesman Jim Cain said. GM's "most important consideration" is if they can keep people safe when they start to operate plants. Some employees have been told to file for unemployment through May 1 when the state requires a date.

"What you will probably see is different plants coming up at different points in time and we promised our suppliers and manufacturing partners that we would be in regular contact about this," Cain said.

Other automakers also have not altered their restart dates since Trump extended the federal guidelines. Toyota Corp.'s North American plants will open April 17 with production resuming April 20. Volkswagen AG intends to restart production at its Tennessee plant at 10 p.m. April 5. Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s 12 manufacturing facilities, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Mississippi and Tennessee plants and Subaru Corp.'s Indiana plant are closed through April 6. Hyundai Motor Co. has suspended production in Alabama until April 10.

Industry analysts expect plants to remain closed through the end of the month over concerns of the virus spreading as well as because of slowed demand.

“There isn’t necessarily a rush to get back into production when demand itself ... just dropped dramatically, so why force it?” said Michael Dunne, CEO of ZoZo Go LLC, a Hong Kong-based automotive consultancy group.

The industry this week will provide some insight into the virus's effect when it reports first-quarter sales. Although January, February and even early March showed healthy sales, demand declined as more states implemented stay-at-home orders. Most like in Michigan also require dealers to shut down their sales operations.

Data from Cox Automotive Inc. estimates last Friday’s new retail vehicle sales were down 55% year-over-year. Used sales were down 40%.

“It’s not going to be a pretty picture,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader, a Cox Automotive company. “We know that sales will be way down. You can’t buy a car because the dealerships aren’t open, and then you may not be in a position to buy, and there’s lots of inventory out there already. They don’t need to crank up the plants for demand that isn’t there.”

While battling the virus in February, China’s auto sales dropped 80%, according to data from the China Passenger Car Association. Production is back up in China with most factories open and operating with at least 50% capacity, Dunne said. The concern now has shifted to low demand for new product.

“One of the factors in place here is that at least for a period of time people will be out of work,” Dunne said. “If China is any indication, customers are gradually returning to the showrooms, but they are not zealous about buying that new car yet. They are being quite cautious.”

But dealers said they hope to get sales operations running again as soon as possible. Business was up 15%  year-over-year in January, February and early March at Jim Walen's Hyundai and FCA dealerships in Seattle. Now, Walen is unable to sell any cars through April 8, and the service department business is down by about half.

Walen hopes it does not take another month for the economy to ramp up again. The business already is looking for assistance from the federal stimulus package that passed last week.

"For this to go through April? That wasn't very good news for us," Walen said. "The end of April seems like a long time. Sooner than later is better."

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