- The exact way forward is not yet clear, but Volkswagen, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and Tesla have all announced or are rumored to be restarting production this week or next.
- VW has made the most explicit plans, with production restarted in Germany today, April 27, and scheduled for the company’s Tennessee plant on May 3. The company has come up with a 100-point plan to do this safely and has shared that document with its suppliers.
- The UAW president says any rushed restart will be “calamitous for all of us.”
UPDATE, 4/29/20: Porsche has announced it’s reopening its Zuffenhausen and Leipzig production facilities starting Monday, May 4. The company says it has taken measures to ensure “the maximum possible safety for employees” and will ramp up production on a gradual basis.
UPDATE, 4/28/20: Bloomberg is now reporting that Tesla has decided against calling workers back before the stay-at-home order is lifted, and will instead bring them back the day after the order ends. That’s still currently scheduled for May 3, but local politicians say it’s likely to be extended.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has reported that the Detroit automakers are now expecting to reopen their production plants on May 18, part of a discussion with the UAW and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Those discussions include ways to protect employee health and ways to inform suppliers how to implement safety protocols. Michigan’s stay-at-home order currently ends May 15.
FCA sent C/D an update saying that, as it looks to restart North American production, it is sharing best practices that have “enabled the restart of operations at our plants in China and this week, with the support of the unions, at our Italian plants.” These new rules were created to align with CDC and WHO recommendations, FCA said, and they fit the pattern VW is following, which means increased social distancing, monitoring employee temperatures, and installing more cleaning stations in the factories.
The COVID-19 situation has created a bit of a patchwork quilt of state-based regulations for automakers with plants in the U.S. to navigate as discussions about restarting production become more and more real.
According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), the COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S. has not yet peaked, but some states, notably Georgia, have announced that some local businesses can reopen. There are also stories—some based on announcements, some on anonymous reports—that many automakers are looking to reopen their plants in the near future.
In the middle of March, right around the time of the first lockdown orders in the U.S., the UAW and the Big Three announced the formation of a COVID-19/Coronavirus Task Force that would “implement enhanced protections for manufacturing and warehouse employees at all three companies.”
UAW President Rory Gamble is a member of this task force, along with GM chairman and CEO Mary Barra, Ford executive chairman Bill Ford, Ford president and CEO Jim Hackett, and FCA CEO Michael Manley. On Friday, Gamble wrote a letter to UAW members that was critical of reopening any plant too soon. “If we restart too early, it will be calamitous for all of us,” he wrote. “I feel the scientific data is not conclusive at this point and it is too risky for our members, their families and our communities to support a quick return to work in early May.” The UAW told Car and Driver today this is the union’s current stance.
Automakers, though, are starting to itch at the plant closures. In early April, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said it hoped to slowly restart U.S. and Canadian production May 4, and a company spokesperson said today that this remains the company’s goal. The plan includes “new procedures to certify the daily wellness of our workforce while also redesigning work stations to maintain proper social distancing and expanding the already extensive cleaning protocols at all locations.”
GM has not yet announced a restart date, and a spokesperson told C/D that the company is conducting “significant planning” to make restarting safe. “We are in regular contact with federal, state, and local authorities, our suppliers, the UAW, and our manufacturing team,” the spokesperson said. “When people do return to work, whether for planning or for regular production, we will use screening, cleaning, and social distancing strategies designed using the best medical and scientific data available, including guidance from the CDC.”
Ford did not respond to C/D’s request for comment, but the automaker told the Detroit Free Press over the weekend that a small number of workers would be asked to come back to work today. A spokesperson told the newspaper that a “small number of hourly and salaried workers” would be asked to come in to prepare for the eventual restart. When that might happen, Ford isn’t saying, but the preparations involve adding extra safety protocols.
There were also reports over the weekend that Tesla will call employees back to work at its Fremont, California, plant this week. CNBC reports that the company sent workers an email saying production would restart on April 29, despite a local stay-at-home order that is in effect until at least May 3. Tesla did not reply to C/D’s request for more information on this plan.
With the number of COVID-19 cases officially dropping in China and South Korea, auto plants there have restarted in recent weeks. When auto plants do reopen in the U.S., they might take some lessons from those facilities as well as what VW is doing in Europe.
The German automaker restarted production at its Wolfsburg, Germany, location today and plans to do the same at its Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant on May 3. In Wolfsburg, the production lines are moving slower than usual, starting at just 10 or 15 percent of total capacity, and the plan is to increase the production rate to around 40 percent next week. One factor in the slow restart is that VW came up with a 100-point plan to try to protect employee health. The reduced output rate allows employees to take time to clean their tools, for example. Employees now also need to keep a minimum distance of 1.5 meters (about five feet) apart—new distance markers have been installed throughout the plant to establish the measurement. When keeping separate is not possible, mouth and nose protection equipment is required to be worn. Employees are also being asked to put on their work outfits at home instead of in the plant locker rooms, and they are supposed to check their temperature before they leave for work. VW is also installing mobile plexiglass partitions and “several hundred” extra hand washing stations throughout the plant.
A similar 90-point plan and slow restart will go into effect in Chattanooga next week, VW said. Six-foot distance barricades, providing extra personal protective equipment, and increased disinfection frequency of all contact surfaces are all on the list there. VW has also shared its 100-point plan with its suppliers.