Could Ford (F 0.08%), General Motors (GM 0.02%), and Tesla (TSLA 0.38%) become medical device makers? It's possible. Ford and GM are in discussions with the Trump administration about producing ventilators needed for patients with coronavirus disease COVID-19. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted on Wednesday, "We will make ventilators if there is a shortage." 

A pressing need

Patients with severe cases of COVID-19 require ventilators because inflammation in the lungs makes it difficult for them to breathe on their own. With the numbers of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise rapidly, there are concerns that the U.S. might not have enough ventilators over the next few weeks. 

Car factory assembly line with car frames

Image source: Getty Images.

Johns Hopkins University researchers estimate that there are around 160,000 ventilators in use by hospitals in the U.S. right now. The federal government has another 12,000 or so in an emergency stockpile. That might not be nearly enough if the rate of growth for COVID-19 in the U.S. doesn't decline.

Companies that already make ventilators are ramping up their production including Medtronic (MDT 0.29%). Ford and GM are evaluating how they could potentially produce ventilators and other medical equipment. Other than Musk's tweet, though, it's not known if Tesla is seriously looking into making ventilators. It's also uncertain how long it would take these traditional carmakers to break into the medical device business.

Not as unusual as you might think

During World War II, automakers switched car factors to make military equipment and weapons. The coronavirus could be viewed as a new kind of global war. Great Britain has already requested that several big automakers, including Ford, help make ventilators for the country. Companies from other industries are stepping up to make needed medical equipment and supplies as well.