Tesla, other carmakers could repurpose factories to build ventilators

Shubham Agarwal

Elon Musk says he’s willing to repurpose factories to build ventilators if there’s a shortage amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO, in his usual fashion, took to Twitter to underline how panic-induced overallocation of resources for coronavirus treatments may “come at expense of treating other illnesses.”

On being asked whether he’d be open to repurposing his factories for manufacturing ventilators, Musk responded: “We will make ventilators if there is a shortage.”

Ventilators are fundamentally essential medical equipment that allow patients in critical conditions to breathe by mechanically transmitting air into and out of their lungs. Since coronavirus primarily infects people’s lungs, countries facing an overwhelming rise of cases like the United States and Italy are running out of ventilators.

In response to Musk’s tweet, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted on Thursday morning that he would gladly take Musk up on his offer.

“Our country is facing a drastic shortage and we need ventilators ASAP — we will need thousands in this city over the next few weeks. We’re getting them as fast as we can but we could use your help!,” de Blasio wrote. “We’re reaching out to you directly.”

With factories closing down and employees in quarantine, medical companies too have been unable to keep up and are already at capacity, supplying only a fraction of the required volume.

“The reality is there is absolutely not enough. We see that in Italy, we saw that in China, we see it in France and other countries. We could sell I don’t know how many. Italy wanted to order 4,000, but there’s not a chance. We sent them something like 400,” Andreas Wieland, the chief executive of Hamilton Medical in Switzerland, one of the world’s largest makers of ventilators told The New York Times.

Musk, in a follow-up tweet, clarified that ventilators cannot be produced instantly but since Tesla already develops “sophisticated” HVAC systems for cars and SpaceX’s spacecraft are equipped with life support systems, it can be done.

Musk has a penchant for boasting on Twitter, and a lot of those bold claims often don’t translate into reality. As Tesla rushes to deliver its latest Model Y SUV on time, Musk has refused to put some of his factories on lockdown despite shelter-in-place orders. While Tesla had to shut down its Shanghai operations, it’s mostly business as usual at the carmaker’s factory in Fremont, California.

“I’d like to be super clear that if you feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable, please do not feel obligated to come to work. I will personally be at work, but that’s just me. Totally OK if you want to stay home for any reason,” Musk wrote in an email to Tesla employees.

In addition to Musk, General Motors’ CEO, Mary Barra reportedly offered to call back workers to produce ventilators in the company’s auto factories. GM and several other automakers have temporarily shut down North American factories both to slow the spread of the virus and in response to an anticipated drop in sales. Other automakers have offered to build ventilators as well.

Ford said Wednesday that it “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. government and are looking into the feasibility.”

The British government has asked Ford, Honda, Rolls-Royce, and Vauxhall to build ventilators and other medical equipment.

Updated on March 19, 2020: Added details on other automakers that may build ventilators.