The unneeded shortage of semiconductors for cars

When cars become so smart that they starve themselves.

As I often say, microelectronics makes the world go round. Cars included, of course.

Fact is, microelectronics cannot exist, today and in the foreseable future, without weird elements called semiconductors. You may safely say that every business in the industrialized world exists and lives, more or less directly, only thanks to semiconductors.

This is true even for cars. Almost every car commercial since at least fifteen years proves this. Previously, the first if not only selling points of any car were the totally un-electronic features, that make a car a car. Both mechanically, and symbolically: speed, traction, size, engine displacement, looks…

Today, those not-so-subtle attributes have become second-order issues. Almost the only things car commercials brag about are the same that you could find in a TV set, or a “smart” fridge: connectivity, embedded displays, smartphone integration, sensors everywhere.

That is, all software, digital features. That is, all semiconductors everywhere, both in plain sight and hidden:

The unneeded shortage of semiconductors for cars /img/semiconductors-in-automobiles.jpg

This dependence has increased so much that several carmakers have had to cut production NOW. And I capitalize “NOW” to stress how deep the dependence is. “NOW”, is after one year of car sales tanking because of COVID-19. One year in which, to make just one example, the historical FIAT/FCA plant of Mirafiori has produced only 8K cars, versus 218K in 2016.

To know exactly which carmakers announced delays, see Reuters or Stripes.

Here, just know that it is happening worldwide, and please think a minute about what this semiconductor shortage means, and how avoidable it could be.

I said “NOW” is significant", but it is also obvious. A global shortage of semiconductors for car right now, after the worst year for car sales ever, is due exactly to the cause of that crisis, and (right now) to recovering from it:

“Major auto chip suppliers… said auto production rebounded faster than expected from the pandemic, leaving them struggling to catch up."

“Chip manufacturing capacity has been stretched thin globally as laptops fly off shelves for working from home, and PCs and gaming consoles sell heavily, leading chip firms such as Nvidia Corp to warn of supply constraints."

N.B.: nVidia is the same company that wants to buy ARM, not just semiconductors.

All this, of course,is interlinked with your usual, friendly neighborhood trade wars:

“A move by U.S. regulators to blacklist China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp, that country’s largest contract chipmaker, has sent chip firms around the world scrambling to find new partners."

Shortage, or wrong priorities?

Here is what I would really like you to see, and think about, in this “shortage”:

  • class segregation in war: poorer countries may fight for water, rich ones for components of (relatively speaking) luxury products
  • Electric engines, navigation, fuel efficiency, and safety do need semiconductors in cars. But a great part of this shortage is due to pushing useless or harmful stuff. Like dumb features of “smart cars”, or cars that will never be really driverless, but even if they were, would depend on overhyped technology anyway
  • should some priority be globally enforced here, obviously through multilateral talks, and formal agreements? Stuff like “carmakers can get microprocessors only after the makers of vaccines, ventilators, X-Ray machines… have secured all the components they need”?