How GM and Ford Switched Out Pickup Trucks for Breathing Machines


April 17, 2020


180 Engineering

180 Insight

In the most severe cases of COVID-19, a patient’s lungs become so inflamed and full of fluid that they no longer deliver enough oxygen to the bloodstream to keep that person alive. One way to counteract this is by using a ventilator, which helps the patient’s lungs operate while the rest of the body fights off the virus.

As the spread of the new coronavirus bloomed into a pandemic, it became clear that there may not be enough ventilators in the United States (and around the world) to treat the coming wave of patients with these severe symptoms.

The race to build more ventilators has seen automakers like Ford, General Motors, and Tesla morph into de facto ventilator distributors and designers, while also helping medical device companies scale up production of the critical equipment. Ford and GM have turned the lights back on at some of their idled facilities to start producing ventilators themselves, with the Trump administration going so far as to use the Korean War-era Defense Production Act (DPA) on the latter to ensure that whatever they make goes directly to the national stockpile. Other technology companies, like Virgin Orbit (Richard Branson’s rocket-launching division), SpaceX, and Dyson, have joined the effort as well.

It’s currently unclear if that combined effort will be enough to stop a ventilator shortage from happening in the US, as there has been in other countries like Italy. But as these companies spin up their operations, it’s worth knowing why they got involved, why we’re facing a shortage, and what, exactly, a ventilator is in the first place.

What Is a Ventilator?

A ventilator is a mechanical device that helps a patient breathe by inflating the lungs and delivering fresh gas to their respiratory system, according to Neil MacIntyre, the medical director of the respiratory therapy department at Duke University. Ventilators often accomplish this with a tube that runs into a patient’s trachea, making it an “invasive” device. There are “noninvasive” ventilators that help deliver gas to a patient’s respiratory system via a removable mask or a “nasal pillow.” Doctors have largely avoided using the noninvasive models because they could increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus in hospitals since patients can still cough virus-laden droplets into the air.

Invasive ventilators can help support a patient’s breathing while their body fights off the effects of the virus. But ventilators are not a cure for COVID-19, and doctors…continue reading article