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Tesla released a video on Sunday showing the progress its engineers have made towards designing and producing a ventilator for those sick with COVID-19. The video is shaky and lightly edited, if it's edited at all. Engineers in masks and gloves talk for a few minutes about how they are using mostly stock Tesla parts to make a ventilator. The ventilator seems to work, at least to the untrained eye. This is only the latest episode in the ventilator production saga in the US.
Ford and General Motors (GM) are all also working on ventilators. Large manufacturers have a history of changing production in times of crisis. For example, both Ford and GM produced military equipment in World War II.
Most important of all, we hope that all three automakers succeed and get ventilators to those who need them. Patients and medical staff need ventilators in the US and all over the world.
The story of how each of these large car manufacturers got to this point is different. Tesla started work after Elon Musk tweeted about the possibility of making ventilators.
Many observers were skeptical, however. Musk had been a vocal skeptic of how the world reacted to the COVID-19 outbreak. That skepticism is best expressed by his short tweet on March 6, though he's had more to say on the topic.
The coronavirus panic is dumb— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 6, 2020
Then Musk sent a misleading tweet about how Tesla already had some "ventilators" to give away.
We have extra FDA-approved ventilators. Will ship to hospitals worldwide within Tesla delivery regions. Device & shipping cost are free. Only requirement is that the vents are needed immediately for patients, not stored in a warehouse. Please me or @Tesla know.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 31, 2020
It turned out that these were Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BPAP) machines, bought from a company called ResMed, and not ventilators that could be used in an intensive care unit. BPAP machines could be useful in helping some COVID-19 patients, but they are not the ventilators that hospitals are desperately looking for.
The latest information from Tesla was the video on YouTube. There is no official word on when those ventilators would be produced, approved, and ready for use on COVID-19 patients.
If Tesla's road to production has been dramatic, Ford's has been mundane. The company announced on March 24 that it had partnered with GE and 3M to start work on ventilators. Since then, communicating mostly through the press, the carmaker has calmly provided updates on its progress without making any grand promises. Ford also does not have a firm date for when ventilators will be ready. Though a recent report from CBS News said that, "next week, hundreds, if not thousands, of ventilators will be rolling off the line."
General Motors (GM), partnering with ventilator manufacturer Ventec Life Systems, also expects to start producing ventilators by next week, according to the CBS News report. GM became the subject of controversy when President Trump threatened to use a wartime procurement law to force the automaker to move faster towards ventilator production. The government did not use the law directly, however. GM is converting a facility in Indiana to produce the ventilators.
Critics complain that all of these efforts will be too little, too late. The peak of the outbreak may already be in the past by next week in places like New York. But nobody is suggesting that the three automakers stop production. The thought of again being caught short of life-saving ventilators is enough to keep the projects going for now. Epidemiologists warn that hot spots could still appear elsewhere in the US and the world, especially in places where social distancing measures haven't been aggressively applied.