From vehicles to ventilators, Ford and GM take on coronavirus

Ford and GM converted factories to produce medical supplies and ventilators when the coronavirus pandemic began.

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The coronavirus pandemic brought a screeching halt to domestic production of new vehicles at U.S. plants of the Ford Motor Company and General Motors. Almost overnight, the two longtime pillars of the American auto industry pivoted and entered the medical supply business.

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Norah O'Donnell interviewed Ford executive chairman Bill Ford and GM CEO and chairman Mary Barra about the adjustments their companies have made during the pandemic. 

"I think when we look at this crisis as a country and said, you know, 'Which industry is positioned to help us not only in terms of sophisticated machinery, but can do a lot [of] them and a lot [of] them quickly," the auto industry is uniquely positioned to do that," Bill Ford told 60 Minutes.

According to Ford, his company is producing personal protective equipment including ventilators, masks, and medical gowns made from the material typically used to build airbags.

GM is working with Washington-based Ventec Life Systems to fill an order for 30,000 ventilators from the federal government. They are also manufacturing facemasks, face shields and other personal protective equipment.

Detroit-based GM told 60 Minutes it began the ventilator production process on March 17. Ten days later, President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to compel GM to make the devices. 

"We knew we were working as fast as we can," Barra told 60 Minutes in responding to messages posted on President Trump's Twitter account. "And with all everything going on around the world we just stayed focused and said we're going to keep going."

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Norah O'Donnell conducts a remote interview with Ford executive chairman Bill Ford. Adam Verdugo

Barra told 60 Minutes GM is making the ventilators at cost. Ford said his company is not looking to profit on the medical equipment it is currently manufacturing. 

"It's terrible that a crisis like this has to remind people how important a manufacturing base is," Ford told O'Donnell. "But it does just that. It really is important for our country, not just for going to war, although that's important too, but in times of crises like this where, you know, we need to manufacture things to help humanity."

This is not the first time Ford and GM have altered their assembly lines when the country is in crisis. The companies played an integral role in aiding the U.S. military effort during World War II producing everything from ammunition to fighter planes. 

The automakers are again aligned in the American effort to respond to COVID-19. 

The video above was produced by Keith Zubrow and Sarah Shafer Prediger. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.