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.
There will be challenges, and the pandemic is certain to alter product cycles, said Laurie Harbour, CEO of Harbour Results, a Detroit-area consulting firm that works with industry suppliers and tooling companies.
"I believe this is going to have a very significant financial impact for OEMs," Harbour said. "Analysts are talking about an 11 million- or 12 million-unit year. With that kind of sales volume, the profitability of OEMs is very different. And when profitability is different, it means OEMs can't invest in all those programs they planned to invest in."
Based on recent conversations with more than 30 suppliers, Harbour believes automakers are planning to delay certain vehicle launches and introductions for the 2022 and 2023 model years by three to six months, reduce trim levels on current models to minimize workloads, and devote available resources to keeping current the most in-demand vehicles that generate the highest profits — particularly trucks.
Automakers in general are not revealing specific plans yet, due to the great unknowns of the pandemic. GM has indicated that it will delay the freshening of some of its trucks, SUVs and sports cars, telling suppliers to stop work on tooling and parts for specific models until next year. GM says vehicles closer to launch, such as the freshened Cadillac Escalade and other full-size SUVs, the new GMC Hummer electric truck, a new version of the Chevrolet Bolt and the Cadillac Lyriq electric crossover, will stay on schedule.
Other automakers have delayed the launch of vehicles that were ready to go before the pandemic forced most of the nation's new-car dealers to close.
Last week, IHS Markit published the COVID-19 Manufacturing Disruption Index, a study that gauges how stay-at-home orders, business closures and other factors around the world are likely to affect suppliers and automakers. As of last week, IHS ranks the disruption in the medium to high range for North American automakers and suppliers.
But you'd never know that by talking to engineers in Detroit.
At Altair, the Detroit-based global supplier of product development software, the company knows from the amount of interactions with its customers that engineers are still cranking at delivering on programs.
"My perception is that computer-aided engineering and simulation designers are pretty productive," James Dagg, Altair's chief technical officer, told Automotive News about the work going on among his customers under stay-at-home orders. "In many ways, it seems more intense than ever. We are seeing guys who use model morphing techniques ask for new training. And we're offering online training courses."
Brian Schabel, a Ford technical expert in propulsion sound and experience, shrugged off his home confinement. Schabel said there is nothing he can't do from home short of the final vehicle sign-off to ensure it meets all the legal noise requirements for EVs.
His project: finish the final sound tuning on the Mustang Mach-E — an upcoming vehicle that Ford Motor Co. wants to showcase as its direction in electrification. The battery-electric performance crossover will have three sound modes — Whisper, Engage and Unbridled — that a driver can select. With the vehicle about a year away from launch, the pressure is on.
"Since we've been working from home, I don't really think I have missed a beat, to be honest with you. The development that we're doing on the sound and refinement, I am still able to do remotely with the tools we have at our fingertips. Ford has set us up pretty well to have the capability to work remotely," he said.
Ford engineers made recordings inside prototype Mach-Es, and software capable of measuring decibels and other characteristics works in a virtual Mach-E, Schabel said.
"It's almost like a video game in a way. It's an application. Virtual reality. You are in this world and you have the vehicle. We created the sounds behind it.
"We don't need to have that vehicle to experience the sound and put it through its paces," Schabel said.
Bob Flotkoetter, director of technology planning and research at Nissan's suburban Detroit technical center, said one way his crew prepared for working at home was by ensuring they had remote access to the company's computers and programs. But one engineer, Jeremy Chambers, who lives in Casco, Mich., packed up boxes of supplies before the March 16 shutdown.
"He was gathering up leads, wires and crimping tools, and he brought that all to his house," Flotkoetter said. "He kind of set up a workshop in his basement. He put wheels on the legs of an old dining room table. Now he's got a little mobile workshop."
Chambers assembled a wiring harness that can be tested.
"He's doing the same thing he would have done at the office," Flotkoetter added.
Still, even though engineers are designing components or running virtual tests on their home computer screens, these prototype parts and systems eventually will have to be manufactured and tested in the real world. That isn't happening now because of the shelter-in-place directive from the state of Michigan that took effect March 24. Many suppliers and automakers went dark before then.
Despite the valiant efforts to keep schedules moving forward, projects could still see a logjam of biblical proportions if suppliers and in-house fabricators get hit with a tidal wave of work when the industry suddenly returns to work.
"In cases where we have physical evaluations or vehicle-level certifications prior to the vehicle going on sale, those are paused and can't be done," Toyota's Tabar said.
Some engineers working from home admit that, although they have been productive, the work is getting done in fits and starts, and their work days have grown longer.
Josh Payne, director of product engineering at American Battery Solutions, shares a home office with his wife, Wendy Payne, a Nissan public relations manager.
They take turns caring for their two young daughters at home in Oakland Township, north of Detroit.
"The girls are not old enough to be self-sustainable," said Payne, whose company runs the old Bosch battery plant in Springboro, Ohio. "One of us has to be always on duty."
The company, which has 62 people on its payroll, is used to making fast decisions and relies on personal meetings when issues arise, Payne said. That changed when everyone started working from home on March 13.
"If I have a problem with a design, I'll walk 40 feet over and talk to the designer or engineer who owns that thing and talk it through in three minutes," Payne recalled of normal times. "Now, I have to set up a call and they have to find a spot on my calendar, or I have to find a spot on theirs. And that meeting is guaranteed to be a half-hour, but usually it's an hour because you have to talk it through and share screens and show pictures and fumble through" the computer-assisted-design material.
Nissan's North American R&D operations employ roughly 1,400 engineers. Some engineers have said they, too, are putting in longer hours at home to get the same amount of work done.
"I talked to a few engineers who told me they find themselves working more during this time period," Flotkoetter said of work time spilling over into other hours. "They don't have that clear line."
Ford's Schabel says his work computer stays on longer as he moves between engineering time and working with his wife to home-school their two children.
Tabar worries about her staff as the weeks of working at home grind on. She holds two conference calls a day to keep them informed on Toyota's internal corporate news, to check on their well-being and to help resolve issues.
"That's the most stressful thing, to make sure they're not feeling too overwhelmed, feeling so much pressure to keep up their due dates, while still trying to work at a site that they're not used to, with their children running all over. It's a very tough thing to transition to," she says.
While it is not certain when product development engineers and the rest of the industry will go back to work, it can't come soon enough for some.
"It's pretty darn stressful," Payne said. "We've got a lot of people who are really good at working hard but fast. And this slows them all down. It's like you have a track full of racehorses just champing at the bit. But they can't go more than a gallop. And it is hard."