A Computer Chip Shortage Has Hobbled the Auto Industry

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Around the world, auto assembly lines are going quiet, workers are idle and dealership parking lots are looking bare.

A shortage of semiconductors, the tiny but critical chips used to calibrate cars’ fuel injection, run infotainment systems or provide the brains for cruise control, has upended automaking.

A General Motors plant in Kansas City closed in February for lack of chips, and still hasn’t reopened. Mercedes-Benz has begun to hoard its chips for expensive models and is temporarily shutting down factories that produce lower-priced C-Class sedans. Porsche warned dealers in the United States this month that customers might have to wait an extra 12 weeks to get their cars, because they lack a chip used to monitor tire pressure.

The French automaker Peugeot, part of the newly formed Stellantis automaking empire, has gone so far as to substitute old-fashioned analog speedometers for digital units in some models.

The disruption could not come at a worse time. Demand for cars has bounced back strongly from the pandemic slump, with consumers ready to spend money they saved over the past year, eager to avoid airplanes by taking road trips. The supply of semiconductors is depriving carmakers of a chance to make up sales they lost.

“We have already a robust demand situation being more held back by the semiconductor issue than anything else,” Ola Källenius, the chief executive of Daimler, said in an interview.

Some automakers, such as Renault, have begun to triage their chips, reserving them for more costly models that bring more profit. “We’re trying to find an intelligent way to prioritize cars with the higher margins,” Clotilde Delbos, Renault’s deputy chief executive, told analysts on Thursday.

Some buyers may be lucky enough to take home a new car, but it may lack options that use specialized chips. Porsche has told U.S. dealers that for several months it won’t be able to deliver high-end seats in the Macan S.U.V. that can be adjusted 18 different ways, a popular upgrade. The necessary chips are unavailable.

One big reason automakers can’t find enough chips is that semiconductor manufacturers have given priority to manufacturers of smartphones, video game consoles and other consumer electronics, which tend to be more lucrative customers.

A modern car can easily have more than 3,000 chips. But cars account for a tiny share of chip demand. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, is one of the few makers of a variety of chips vital to auto manufacturing, but in 2020 carmakers generated only 3 percent of the company’s sales, according to Roland Berger, a German consulting firm.

TSMC’s most important customers are smartphone makers, which accounted for half of sales. Smartphones outnumber cars by a wide margin. In 2019, before the pandemic disrupted global economies, auto factories churned out 93 million vehicles compared with smartphone production of 1.4 billion units.

Over all, the chip shortage and other supply chain snarls curtailed production by 1.3 million vehicles in the first three months of the year, according to IHS Markit, a consultancy.

The problem has become a concern for political leaders in Washington and other capitals.

Peter Altmaier, the German economics minister, recently appealed to his counterpart in Taiwan, a global center for semiconductor manufacturers, asking in so many words whether the Taiwanese minister couldn’t help shake loose a few chips urgently needed by German carmakers.

The chip shortage “has become a serious problem for manufacturers, especially the auto industry,” a group of German economic research institutes warned in a joint report this month.

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April 23, 2021, 1:31 p.m. ET

The crisis has exposed not only how dependent the car industry is on a few suppliers, but also how vulnerable it is to disruptions. Supply chain managers shuddered last month when an early-morning fire knocked out production at a factory owned by Renesas Electronics in Hitachinaka, Japan, north of Tokyo. Renesas is a crucial supplier of chips used to monitor brake functioning, control power steering, trigger airbags and in many other tasks.

Weather has also played a role. Storms in Texas earlier in the year temporarily forced the shutdown of three semiconductor factories. And Taiwan is in the midst of a severe drought, analysts at IHS Markit warned in a recent report. Chip manufacturing requires large amounts of very pure water.

Even without a pandemic and supply chain disruptions, the auto industry is in turmoil. In the United States, sales have been basically flat since the early 2000s. Profit margins are slim. Some big automakers may not survive the shift to electric cars.

“If I were a chip manufacturer I wouldn’t start investing in a new plant unless I got free money from the government,” said ManMohan S. Sodhi, who teaches supply chain management at the business school at City, University of London.

Free money may be on the way. The White House held a summit on the chip shortage this month, and has proposed allocating $50 billion in infrastructure funds to reverse a decline in the share of chip manufacturing that takes place on American shores. But new chip factories can’t be built fast enough to solve the immediate shortage.

And unless government subsidies persuade them otherwise, semiconductor makers and other suppliers are likely to build any new factories in or near China, which is the biggest car market and, unlike the United States and Europe, is growing steadily.

It’s not at all clear how long the chip famine could last. Mr. Sodhi said that he suspected chip makers were exaggerating the shortage to pry subsidies from governments, and that the crisis could be over in a month.

Auto industry consultants at Roland Berger are more pessimistic, saying the shortage could last all year.

On Thursday, Ms. Delbos of Renault said “the visibility is deteriorating” for determining an end to the chip crisis, “as news is changing by the day.”

In the meantime, automakers are improvising to try to minimize the damage. Daimler’s Mercedes unit is allocating scarce chips to its priciest models, like the EQS electric luxury sedan the company unveiled this month, which is expected to start at around $100,000.

The triage prompted Daimler to temporarily shut down factories in Germany that produce lower-priced C-Class sedans. Most of the 18,500 workers at the plants are furloughed until the end of April, though they will continue to receive government subsidized “short work” pay.

Along the same lines, Volkswagen has cut production at plants in Germany that make sedans and other internal combustion models, and one in Mexico where the company makes Tiguan S.U.V.s for the American market. But a factory in Zwickau, Germany, that produces ID.3 sedans and ID.4 S.U.V.s, the vanguard of Volkswagen’s drive to dominate the emerging market for electric cars, has not been affected, according to the company.

General Motors, which has had to halt production temporarily at a half-dozen plants since the beginning of the year, has in some cases been producing cars without electrical components and parking them until the parts are available. Ford Motor said Wednesday that it would keep several U.S. plants idle longer than expected because of the chip shortage.

The auto industry has been paralyzed by supply chain disruptions before. Mr. Källenius recalled an episode when a hurricane struck Puerto Rico and shut down production at a factory that, to his surprise and pretty much everyone else’s, was the only source of a coating essential to some kinds of auto electronics.

Automobiles have tens of thousands of parts and so many layers of suppliers and sub-suppliers and sub-sub-suppliers that even carmakers have trouble keeping track of every component’s provenance.

The economics of the industry are such that only suppliers with the highest volume survive. Smaller suppliers tend to die out because they can’t produce parts or materials as cheaply as the big players, leaving the industry dependent on one or two manufacturers of high-pressure fuel lines, for example, or a certain specialized plastic.

The current semiconductor shortage may not be the last. The auto industry’s need for semiconductors is expected to explode in coming years because of autonomous driving features and the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, which are more reliant on software than internal combustion engines.

Mr. Källenius said, though, that the most sophisticated chips were not the ones currently giving him headaches. “We are missing the most simple of chips, that maybe only cost cents or dollars,” he said. “That’s holding us up from building a product that costs $75,000.”