Thousands of U.S. auto workers will return to their assembly lines this week for the first time in months. Auto dealers are gradually resuming in-person operations, albeit on terms that are often less than ideal.
Yes, the American auto industry is returning to work. For good or ill, it will be a symbolic step in the nation's COVID-19 story. Here's hoping that it's one toward a steady recovery of the U.S. economy and not a premature disregard for the country's lack of testing and tracing, let alone immunization.
Factories and retail outlets are challenging environments to prevent the spread of a contagious disease. (Offices aren't a lot easier, but office work can more easily be done from homes.) We're encouraged by what companies such as General Motors and Ford have been able to do at auto plants in China and on makeshift medical-device assembly lines in the U.S. — where they seem to be operating safely and to have practices in place to react quickly if a worker contracts the coronavirus.
Whether the industry can return to work safely is question No. 1. But the next question looms even larger: What kind of economy is it coming back to?
The 16 million to 17 million light-vehicle selling rate that the U.S. industry was running before the COVID-19 pandemic has surely vanished. What will take its place?
Barring a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks, April's estimated 9 million light-vehicle selling rate — accomplished with perhaps a third of dealerships closed, but with consumers awash in jaw-dropping incentives — will probably be the low point of 2020.
The road back may be a rough slog. The nation's unemployment figures have reached staggering levels, leaving far fewer consumers confident enough to commit to new vehicles and other large purchases. Many savings accounts have been drained, and according to Edmunds, last month a record share of trade-ins were underwater — and by a record amount.
Dealerships and auctions that have laid off employees by the thousands are calling them back by the hundreds.
It's a start, much like the halting, safety-first production widely expected in the first days that vehicle assembly resumes. Establishing safe practices and maintaining them when the pressure heats up will be a test for automakers in the U.S., just as it will be for the rest of the economy.