Can Our Shuttered Auto Plants Make Ventilators for Coronavirus Patients? And Will the Government Let Them?

GM’s CEO is offering to help. She shouldn't wait for the feds to figure out what to do.


Can GM and Ford convert their shuttering auto plants into ventilator factories—and can they do it in enough time to make a difference fighting the coronavirus? We may find out.

We have a shortage of beds and equipment in American hospitals, and those who have read the reporting of Reason's Eric Boehm over the years know one big reason why: Government regulations, heavily influenced by hospitals trying to stop competitors, restrict hospitals' ability to add more capacity via "Certificate of Need" laws. Now the spread of the coronavirus threatens to outpace the number of hospital beds and ventilators that America has available.

On Wednesday, Ford, GM, and Fiat all announced together they were closing their auto plants until at least the end of March. Now GM CEO Mary Barra has reportedly told the White House that her company might be able to use its excess factory space to build more ventilators. Bloomberg reports that Barra is already in talks to figure out how this might be done.

My advice to Barra (not that she needs it): Don't wait for the federal government to get its act together. The CEO of Ventec Life Systems, Chris Kiple, told NPR yesterday that his company intends to ramp up production of ventilators fivefold but it will take about 90 days. The interview makes it clear that the process of procuring parts and building ventilators is not a simple one. Waiting for a federal government that has been dithering and obstructive in its responses will simply add unnecessary steps and increase the amount of time it will take for GM to transition. Even now, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers of Disease Control is saying it will take at least 45 to 90 days to approve a new production facility to manufacture more masks.

Assuming, that is, that GM's help is actually needed. Don't take this article as a screed yelling for GM to get to work making ventilators for America. But if the company is better positioned to work directly with hospitals, evaluate the demand, connect to supply chains, and draw in the appropriate talent, it should be free to do so.

Some coverage of these possible manufacturing shifts compares them to the military efforts in World War II to help build Jeeps and tanks. Let's resist that comparison. The federal government is supposed to oversee war efforts and call the shots on what equipment is needed based on its own military strategies and goals. This, by contrast, is a civilian public health crisis that relies heavily on analysis and expertise from the private medical sector. In the United States, federal bureaucracies have been sluggish in testing and in evaluating needs, and thus have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus.

The feds may be able to contribute with money and other resources. But let's not have GM (and other companies) sitting on their hands waiting for the White House to decide what to do. America has plenty of skilled leaders. They don't need to wait for permission.