Working at a makeshift table in his basement 42 miles west of Detroit, a Nissan engineer is assembling a prototype wire harness for an accessory that is scheduled for an upcoming vehicle.
In Dearborn, a preproduction Mustang Mach-E — a vital new vehicle that won't be on the road for at least a year — sits in the driveway of a Ford engineer who is tweaking the acoustic tuning on the vehicle's three driving modes.
And just north of Detroit's city limits, a camouflaged electric Cadillac SUV of an unknown nameplate is being tested on public roads by a General Motors calibration engineer in an effort to keep that product's launch on schedule.
U.S. car factories are closed. Parts suppliers' parking lots are empty and automakers' tech centers are dark as employees stay home to curtail the spread of COVID-19, the biggest disruption to the auto industry and American life since World War II.
But one part of the industry may be too vital to shift into park: product development.
That's because the R&D that goes on in labs across the U.S. is not just about this month's work or next month's schedule. It is work on projects that are years in the making. A delay in April 2020 could well mean a missed product launch years after the pandemic has ended.
"Everyone is up and running, doing that work from their houses," said Kristen Tabar, group vice president, vehicle development and engineering at Toyota Motor North America Research and Development. Tabar, who is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., oversees around 350 engineers and researchers.
At the moment, the danger to programs and schedules is uncertain. If the industry returns to normal fairly quickly, automakers could still keep future products on track. If the industry forgoes its traditional summer shutdown, a two-week break most companies schedule in the dog days of summer, it can make up for at least some of the current downtime of the quarantine.