Mar 27, 2020

Axios Navigate

Welcome back! It's Day 4 of Michigan's 21-day stay-at-home order.

  • In my household we're having themed family dinners and we picked code words to use if we need a break from the togetherness. So far we haven't had to use them! Hope you and yours are staying healthy.
  • If you have tips or just want to say hi, send me an email at
  • Smart Brevity count: 1,391 words, a 5-minute read.

Situational awareness: This week is usually when cars and fancy exhibits are rolling into the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in preparation for the annual New York Auto Show. Instead, they're staging 1,000 hospital beds.

1 big thing: Trump erupts at GM and Ford over ventilators

President Trump speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 26. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

At President Trump's urging, automakers have mobilized with astonishing speed to help medical equipment makers produce much-needed ventilators and masks to fight the coronavirus.

  • But with pressure mounting as the pandemic spreads and mixed signals coming from the White House's emergency response team, an agitated president lashed out at GM and Ford this morning on Twitter.
  • "As usual with 'this' General Motors, things just never seem to work out. They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, 'very quickly'. Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B. Invoke 'P'."
  • "General Motors MUST immediately open their stupidly abandoned Lordstown plant in Ohio, or some other plant, and START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!!!!!! FORD, GET GOING ON VENTILATORS, FAST!!!!!!"
  • A few minutes later, he tweeted: "We have just purchased many Ventilators from some wonderful companies. Names and numbers will be announced later today!"

Where it stands: Within 90 minutes, Ventec Life Systems announced that GM will begin shipping FDA-cleared ventilators from GM's Kokomo, Indiana, factory as soon as next month. GM will redeploy 1,000 workers to ramp production and is donating its resources at cost, the release said.

  • "Depending on the needs of the federal government, Ventec and GM are poised to deliver the first ventilators next month and ramp up to a manufacturing capacity of more than 10,000 critical care ventilators per month with the infrastructure and capability to scale further."
  • Suppliers have been told to gear up for production of as many as 200,000 machines.
  • GM is also going to start making up to 100,000 surgical masks per day at a factory near Detroit.
  • "We are proud to stand with other American companies and our skilled employees to meet the needs of this global pandemic," said Mary Barra, GM chairman and CEO. "This partnership has rallied the GM enterprise and our global supply base to support Ventec, and the teams are working together with incredible passion and commitment. I am proud of this partnership as we work together to address urgent and life-saving needs."

Why it matters: Governors are pleading with Trump to do more to help their states secure the necessary supplies to care for a surge in coronavirus patients. But the president has been reluctant to federalize the effort.

  • At a news conference Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described a conference call with the president and other governors during which he pushed for Trump and his administration to be “more assertive and aggressive and more organized” on getting manufacturers across the country to pitch in, per the Seattle Times.
  • "Today we're in a mad scramble with 50 states competing against each other for crucial supplies," Inslee said. "We need a federal system ... just like we used in World War II."
  • After Trump told governors his administration was ready to be the "backup" for states in crisis, Inslee spoke up and said to the president, "We don't need a backup. We need a Tom Brady," according to the Washington Post.

What we know: The GM announcement had been scheduled for Wednesday but was called off to buy more time for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assess whether the estimated $1 billion price tag was too expensive, and how many ventilators would be produced, the New York Times reported and Axios confirmed.

Other automakers including Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and Tesla are mobilizing supply chains and conferring with medical device makers to see how they can help.

Flashback: Trump publicly pushed GM to move heroically, but if the effort fails, GM will be left facing the fallout, as I wrote earlier this week.

2. A lifeline for the devastated airline industry

American Airlines planes parked at Los Angeles International Airport. Photo: Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Congress' massive $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package includes $58 billion for U.S. airlines, half in grants to cover 750,000 employees' paychecks, and the rest in loans or loan guarantees to help them keep operating during the worst travel downturn in history.

Why it matters: With some 80 million U.S. residents under mandatory stay-at-home orders and the coronavirus pandemic continuing to spread, hardly anyone is flying these days. But when the public health crisis ends, airlines want to be able to take off again quickly.

The big picture: The Treasury Department can demand stock warrants in exchange for the loans, which means U.S. taxpayers could wind up owning a chunk of America's best-known airlines.

  • Air cargo carriers get a chunk of the money, too — $4 billion in grants and $4 billion in loans.
  • Airports get $10 billion in grants and contractors like catering, ground crew and ticketing get $3 billion.

One of the most controversial recipients is Boeing, which, although not named, is believed to get up to $17 billion for loans and loan guarantees for "businesses critical to maintaining national security."

  • Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told Fox Business that his company would refuse government assistance if it came with equity strings attached.
  • The company could tap other funds in the package and be subject to the same limits on stock buybacks and executive pay as other large employers, without giving up a stake in the company.

In total, the stimulus package includes $114 billion for transportation.

Go deeper: The Eno Center for Transportation has a great summary here.

3. Car sales move online — maybe forever

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Car dealers are doing everything they can — including making house calls to deliver cars remotely — in hopes of preventing a total collapse of vehicle sales.

Why it matters: Few consumers have been willing to buy cars online the way they buy shoes. But among the many lifestyle changes we might see when this pandemic finally ends could be a desire to conduct more business remotely — including car shopping.

What's happening: With millions of Americans stuck at home, big dealership chains like AutoNation and Sonic Automotive are pushing their online-retailing services harder, reports the Wall Street Journal.

  • They're even sending salespeople to customers' homes — if allowed by social-distancing regulations — and making it easier to complete the purchase over the internet.
  • Some dealerships are also offering to pick up and drop off customers' cars for repairs or maintenance to try to keep their service departments busy and prevent layoffs.
  • The National Automobile Dealers Association has argued that dealerships and repair shops should be considered "essential services."

The bottom line, writes the Journal: "This may be the iPhone moment of transitioning to a more digital retail environment," said Tyson Jominy, auto analyst for J.D. Power.

4. Driving the conversation

Air taxi: Lilium raises another $240M to design, test and run an electric aircraft taxi service (Ingrid Lunden — TechCrunch)

  • Why it matters: The deal is one of the biggest fundraisers to date for a flying taxi startup. It's hard to know whether there's even a real market for electric vertical takeoff and landing (e-VTOL) aircraft, but with most travel today on hold, it's fun to think about future transportation.

Trucking: TuSimple and ZF to develop tech for mass-produced autonomous trucks (Linda Baker — FreightWaves)

  • Why it matters: The partnership with the well-known European auto supplier is a sign that TuSimple is ready to move beyond the prototype phase and is getting closer to driverless deployment.

Emergency Wifi: FCC lends WISPs 5.9 GHz spectrum for pandemic-driven traffic (John Eggerton — Broadcasting & Cable)

  • Why it matters: The auto industry is fighting an FCC plan to share the dedicated auto safety spectrum with WiFi providers. But for the next 60 days, the FCC is freeing up a portion of those airwaves to allow telehealth services in rural areas.
  • My thought bubble: Who can argue during this public health emergency?
5. National Geographic's EV road trip

This sign in Menlo, Iowa, was erected in 1934, on what was then U.S. Highway 6. The sign, restored in 2008, waves again: Goodbye to the old car culture. Hello to something new. Photo: David Guttenfelder/National Geographic

Check out National Geographic's April issue (subscription required) in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, for a different perspective on climate change.

  • Writer Craig Welch and photographer David Guttenfelder set out on a road trip from the Santa Monica Pier to the East Coast, in rented electric cars in search of what a green, carbon-free country might look like in 2070.
6. What I'm driving

2020 Lexus NX300h. Photo: Lexus

This week, I'm driving a 2020 Lexus NX 300h hybrid, but I have nowhere to go.

The big picture: Michigan is under a stay-at-home order until April 13, and I've been so busy covering coronavirus news that I haven't had much time anyway.

Finally I decided to venture out for a solo drive.

  • I headed out along the lake shore and saw nothing but birds on the water — no freighters, no fishing skiffs, no sailboats. It was very peaceful.
  • I drove by some shopping malls and saw empty parking lots. But I was surprised by how many cars were on the road. Maybe I wasn't the only one with cabin fever.

The Lexus NX 300h isn't the ideal car for a pleasure drive — it's a small hybrid crossover that feels sluggish and cramped — but that doesn't matter.

With a Bluetooth connection and a change of scenery, I was able to talk to friends and family without violating the social distancing rules.

The bottom line: It lifted my spirits. You should try it.