Once More, Trump Involves Automaker CEOs At Crucial Moment

President challenges GM, Ford, Tesla chiefs to pivot to ventilator production and see ‘how good’ they are.

Mary Barra, CEO of GM Credit: GM.com
Mary Barra, CEO of GM Credit: GM.com

Lots of CEOs of big American companies are redirecting their companies in major ways to help the nation cope with the medical demands of the coronavirus pandemic. But President Donald Trump once again is turning to chiefs of the nation’s automakers to take the lead.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Ford’s CEOs, previously Mark Fields and now Jim Hackett, alternatively have been rock stars and whipping boys for Trump’s diatribes, policy prescriptions and expectations for American industrialists, stretching way back to his campaign in 2016.

So it should be little surprise that these folks, plus Tesla CEO Elon Musk and other top auto executives in the United States by extension, were called out by the president on Sunday as he’s looking for major manufacturing companies to re-gear themselves to make ventilators and other now-scarce pieces of equipment for treating and containing coronavirus.

“Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go-ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST!” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “Go for it auto execs, lets see how good you are?”

Trump was exhorting automaker CEOs to pick up a challenge that Barra had suggested as early as last week that the companies consider. So far the president hasn’t officially ordered any companies to make critical supplies through the Defense Production Act, which he invoked on Wednesday.

And even as other major manufacturers already have been working to convert some of their production capacity to making vital supplies from masks to hand sanitizers, it isn’t clear exactly how much any automaker could do to begin turning out, say, ventilators in the next few days or even few weeks at operations that, for now, they have idled.

Car-assembly lines, for example, are tightly calibrated and massively invested for the specific tasks of attaching a chassis to an engine, for example. The companies have, for instance, “3D printers for components, ‘clean rooms’ in some plants that could meet FDA standards and Tyvek suits used in paint shops” that could be converted to medical-prevention purposes,” a columnist on Seeking Alpha pointed out.

Already, on Friday, GM said it was partnering with Ventec Life Systems, a medical-device company, to increase production of its respiratory systems rather than GM making ventilators on its own. Ventec is to leverage GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more of its critically-important ventilators.

And even Tesla CEO Elon Musk seems to finally have gotten religion on this score. Originally a controversial skeptic about the severity of the coronavirus and the auto chief who expressed the most reluctance about shutting down his operations – Tesla car-making was supposed to stop today—Musk tweeted over the weekend that he’d had a “long engineering” discussion with people from Medtronic, a major medical-device maker.