Weekly Brief: Car Production Restarts But Some Projects Won’t Come Back

Add the connected car service, Automatic, to the growing list of Coronavirus casualties in the auto industry.

SiriusXM announced last week that it will cancel its service, which made it easy for car dealers and consumers to add connectivity to their vehicles at the time of sale. Customers could also buy Automatic at Best Buy or on Amazon for $99.99. The device plugged into a vehicle’s OBD-II port and paired with a smartphone-based app to provide a range of services such as crash alerts, roadside assistance, real-time vehicle location sharing, vehicle health monitoring and integration with smart home devices. Automatic was compatible with any car manufactured since 1996. However, because of the uncertainty and decreased use of the service during the pandemic, SiriusXM sees no path forward. The service will end May 28, 2020.

To be clear, this is not a huge loss. In a world in which human life is being sacrificed in frightening numbers to a rogue virus in countries and communities both large and small, the disappearance of an after-market connected car platform matters little to nothing at all. There are other services like Automatic out there. Zubie and Verizon Hum come to mind. Still, it’s a reminder that, even as vehicle manufacturing starts to kick back into gear and car sales creep back to life, the post-pandemic world will be different for the auto industry. Some connected car services won’t return. Some connected car features that had been planned into new models won’t survive. Some new models will never make it off the drawing board.

To that last point, Lincoln revealed last week that it has canceled an electric vehicle that it had been working on in tandem with Rivian. The EV was scheduled to have Rivian’s flexible skateboard chassis, which enables Level 3 autonomy and cloud-based infotainment among other high-tech features. Lincoln said the companies will continue to work together, just not on this project owing to the uncertainty of today’s environment.

On the bright side, Toyota says that it plans to reopen some of its European plants this week. Mercedes-Benz is targeting next week, while Volkswagen reopened its Wolfsburg, Germany, car manufacturing plant last week. The Wolfsburg plant had been shuttered since the middle of March and holds the distinction as the largest car manufacturing plant in the world. It’s 70 million square feet, employs 63,000 workers, and can crank out 3,500 vehicles a day. VW says that to safely reopen it has instituted a 100-point safety program that it hopes will serve as a blueprint for other carmakers to follow. These safety protocols include requiring workers to take their temperatures every morning at home, open doors only with their elbows, disinfect tools after every shift and never pass them hand to hand. Cars have been moved further apart on the factory floor. Workers have to wear masks and the company has installed plexiglass windows to separate employees when they have to work in close proximity. The list of modifications goes on.

Instead of 20,000 workers, the factory has reopened with 8,000 at reduced hours so that workers from one shift do not overlap with a second shift. Naturally, production is scaled back but it hopes to manufacture 1,400 in its first week. The goal is for that number to rise to 6,000 vehicles next week, at which point it will continue to produce at 40% of its total capacity until further guidance arrives from the market and from the German government. The health of its workforce will also factor in. If COVID-19 follows the trajectory of some of the world’s worst pandemics past, the second and third wave of death and illness could surpass the first, which will lead to further closures, furloughs, canceled cars and lost jobs. Let’s all hope that’s not the case.

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