Carmakers Abandon Car Making, Now producing Medical Supplies

Car firms around the world are responding to calls from governments to help make more ventilators and face masks to help out during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, March 21, 2020,  Fiat began converting one of its car plants in China to start making about one million masks a month.

The car manufacturer wants to start production in the coming weeks, wrote its chief executive Mike Manley in an email.

Other major car firms are also looking at ways they can change manufacturing towards ventilators.

General Motors, Ford and Tesla in the US have all pledged their support to offer resources to make more ventilators, along with Japanese carmaker Nissan and Formula 1 teams in the UK.

Major car plants in the US, Europe, and Asia have ceased production to try to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. They are, however, still pledging to help make ventilators and other vital medical equipment.

US President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday, March 20, 2020: "Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST! Go for it auto execs, let's see how good you are?"

His tweet came after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it had abridged barriers in the medical device approval process to help speed up the production of ventilators.

"Medical device makers can more easily make changes to existing products, such as changes to suppliers or materials, to help address current manufacturing limitations or supply shortages," US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.

"Other manufacturers, such as automakers, can more easily repurpose production lines to help increase supply."

How easy will it be for Carmakers to start manufacturing ventilators?

However, some experts have warned that carmakers may not find it easy to switch production.

Jens Hallek, head of ventilator manufacturer Hamilton Medical, said the materials and the components needed to build a ventilator are "highly specific" and require "specialised know-how".

"These are extremely sensitive machines with not only a lot of hardware but also a lot of software. If one of the components does not work correctly, the whole machine shuts down and cannot be used anymore," he said.

Former US Defense Department officials earlier told the Washington Post that it could take more than a year for carmakers or aerospace factories to start making ventilators.

But the carmakers are ‘fully focused’

Last week, Formula 1 teams in the UK said they hoped to find "a tangible outcome in the next few days" to help increase the supply of medical equipment. Working with the government and health authorities, F1 said it had experts in design, technology and production capabilities who could help out.

Nissan is part of a consortium, including sports car firm McLaren and aerospace company Meggitt, looking to develop a new medical ventilator. "We are fully focused on the project," McLaren said in a statement, but warned of the "limited time and scale of the challenge".

Indian billionaire Anand Mahindra said his company, The Mahindra Group, would begin work immediately to explore how its factories could make ventilators.