Overnight, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, said that those companies would repurpose their factories to make ventilators in the event of a shortage. True to form, the announcement came in the midst of a Twitter conversation about not creating a panic--which could cause more dramatic than the actual virus (according to Musk).
We will make ventilators if there is a shortage-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 19, 2020
Musk's offer to manufacture critical medical equipment if needed is certainly appreciated, and--as he points out--SpaceX and Tesla already build far more complex systems than ventilators. Tesla has also taken some heat for not closing its Fremont, California factory, and instead keeping the production line running as it launched a brand new vehicle, the Model Y.
Alameda County, where the factory is located, is under a "shelter-in-place" order, meant to slow the spread of the pandemic. According to the Los Angeles Times, Tesla, which employs 10,000 workers at the factory, says that there are currently 2,500 people showing up to work.
At the same time, many people on Twitter (see the tweet above) pointed out that we may very well already have a shortage of ventilators.
While it's technically true that there have been no reports of Covid-19 patients in the U.S. who haven't had access to a ventilator, there is a real concern that could change if there is a surge in the critically ill. Ventilators assist with breathing, which can be directly affected by a respiratory disease, such as the one caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Medical device makers are already seeing increased demand for supplies as hospitals prepare for things to potentially get worse, and are racing to keep up. Yesterday, President Trump announced that he will invoke the Defense Production Act, an order he signed last night, which allows Federal Agencies to purchase supplies. However, the issue is in whether companies can build what is needed quickly enough for those who need them.
Tesla isn't even the first auto maker to make this offer. General Motors, which started closing all of its factories in the U.S. Wednesday, has said it is willing to call back workers to make ventilators, and--according to Bloomberg--is actively looking to figure out how to make that happen.
By the way, it's worth pointing out that this situation isn't unique to Tesla, or to other automakers. Obviously Tesla wants to keep making products to sell, and right now, the jobs at its factory are helping real people continue paying their bills. The trade off is that the longer those people all show up to work, the greater the chance that one or more of them will become exposed to the Coronavirus.
That's the exact same analysis that businesses across the country are facing. In many cases, those businesses had no choice. For example, in states like Illinois, Michigan, and California (among others), governors have banned gatherings and forced businesses like restaurants and bars to close their doors, except for takeout or delivery.
For other businesses, the equation is complicated. Doing the right thing for your people isn't perfectly clear. Keeping them safe and healthy is clearly a top priority. Keeping them employed is often just as important for many people.
The offer by automakers is actually a great lesson for every business in finding creative solutions to problems, especially in a crisis. Changing a factory to build ventilators instead of cars isn't a small thing, but the fact that GM and Tesla made the offer is exactly the kind of thing we should expect from those who can help right now.