Analog Revenge: Chip Shortage Forcing Automakers to Ditch Tech

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
analog revenge chip shortage forcing automakers to ditch tech

After months of seeing factories idled, it seems that the global semiconductor shortage has encouraged the automotive sector to rethink some production strategies. Numerous brands have opted to strip vehicles of specific features to help offset the ever-worsening chip problem, occasionally supplanting them with older hardware.

Well, well, well. It looks like the push into electromobility hasn’t gone quite as planned and the industry has come crawling back to analog in some cases. Though it would be premature to break out the campaign and declare the old ways superior for all time. The resurgence of analog hardware is likely to be short-lived, ending the second the semiconductor shortage lets up. As much as your author wants to believe the industry will learn a lesson about not putting all your eggs in one basket, it didn’t seem to in the last century and is unlikely to come around during this one.

While we knew automakers had begun cutting corners and thinking outside the box to address the chip shortage, reporting from Bloomberg opened our eyes to some of what’s happening in markets outside of our own. Many automakers are now stripping high-end features from cars where customers wouldn’t normally expect them so they can be reallocated for premium or high-volume models. For example, the Peugeot 308 going back to analog gauges and Renault’s Arkana is settling for a smaller central display without navigation.

In fact, neutering GPS has been a common solution for manufacturers encountering a chip deficit. Nissan has also cut navigation as standard equipment from some products so they could be used more popular models and we’ve heard rumors that other manufacturers are following suit. But it’s not just the flashy stuff. General Motors announced it will build certain 2021 light-duty full-size pickup trucks without a fuel management module, worsening fuel efficiency by around a mile per gallon.

There have also been cutbacks on some driving aids, though not the outright massacre some of us had been hoping for. Ram 1500s no longer offer blind-spot monitoring and nixed its digital rearview mirror, customers now have to order them special. It’s something we’re expecting from other manufacturers, especially since it provides them an opportunity to charge extra for something that used to be standard content. We’re hoping the same happens to those wildly invasive connectivity features and half-baked (often counterproductive) advanced driving aids, but nobody is holding their breath.

Still, the semiconductor shortage is only going to get worse. What was previously dubbed a short-term problem has evolved into a harrowing industrial nightmare caused largely by our own stupidity. Had the industry decided to gradually ramp up automotive technology (perhaps after features had been more thoroughly tested), decided that pandemic-related lockdowns didn’t need to be quite so strict, or bothered to rely on something other than global just-in-time supply chains, the situation would be far less dire.

From Bloomberg:

A failure to secure critical supplies is a massive short-term setback — millions of vehicle sales will be lost this year — and is a bad sign for the future as competition from tech-savvy internet and consumer-electronics companies intensifies.

“This probably gets worse before it gets better,” said Stacy Rasgon, who covers the semiconductor industry for Sanford C. Bernstein. “It just takes a long time to bring this capacity online.”

NXP Semiconductor CEO Kurt Sievers said the shift to EVs is happening faster than anticipated, which has added to the increased demand for automotive chips. NXP plans to ship at least 20 percent more auto chips by revenue in the first half of 2021 compared with the first half of 2019, even though car production has dropped about 10 percent over the period, he said.

Mark Liu, chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., cautioned the crisis is far from over. His company, which is the world’s most advanced chipmaker and will be critical to any resolution, will begin to meet auto clients’ minimum requirements by June, but expects the car-chip shortages could last until early 2022, he said in an interview with CBS.

With electronics accounting for increasingly more of a vehicle’s sale price, your author has envisioned a world where car companies sell cheap, basic automobiles that forego a lot of the distracting bells and whistles that have become commonplace over the last decade. However, that would represent a complete about-face for an industry that’s become totally preoccupied with electrification and connectivity and be at odds with policies advanced by world governments.

The more realistic scenario is extended production lulls and rampant shortages extending beyond semiconductor chips. Auto suppliers are bending over backward to procure components and they’re just one of several industries doing the same. Meanwhile, the turnaround on orders placed continues to balloon with most firms lucky to see their chip deliveries arriving within four months. Current estimates have the shortage costing the automotive sector over three million units of vehicles by year’s end.

[Image: SunflowerMomma/Shutterstock]

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  • 3SpeedAutomatic 3SpeedAutomatic on May 09, 2021

    Some of us are just "analog" and enjoy the pleasure of turning dials and pressing buttons to achieve inner peace and driving harmony. That's why I holding on to my 2012 Ford Escape which has: - Dials to control the volume and station selections. It also has some corresponding remote control buttons on the steering wheel, but I ignore these. - A CD player which is as obsolete as a cassette or 8-track player (remember them). However, I gain great joy popping in a CD and listing to Cheap Trick, Kansas, with Patsy Cline for good measure. I have a stack of CD in my study which I rotate thru as the year goes by. Not to make this a political issue, but , "I'll give you my CDs when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers". - Single control A/C. No duel control, no bi-polar features. Just an easy set of buttons with a direct tactical feel on the face of the dash. What more could you ask for! - Blind spot devices called concave mirrors built into each rear view mirror. Want to change lanes, just look!! No vibration of the steering wheel, no flashing lights, no annoying beeping sound. I love it!! - One concession is Blue Tooth which I only use for incoming calls (there's those funny controls on the steering wheel again). I equate this feature to "hearing aids", therefore I have a tendency to speak very loud when I use the feature. It appears the caller(s) appreciate my raised voice for clear, precise communication. - Lacks a rear facing camera. However, I still young enough (60 +) that I do turn my head and actually look after engaging reverse. - A 8 year old Garmin GPS on the dash board. These are becoming a collector's item and several have been logged into the Smithsonian collection. However, can't beat proven technology. I have used it on several driving tours of Europe with the assistance of sims cards specific to each region of Europa! Worked perfectly!!!!! I just dread replacing the Escape.

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on May 10, 2021

    Automotive Awesomeness Index = • Number of semiconductor chips divided by • Paint thickness in mils By this measure, automobiles are not only better than ever, but improving at an increasing rate. (Had a random parking lot sighting the other day of a not-very-old BMW roundel with *no* paint remaining - of any color. Tsk. [Brand? What's a brand?]) -> Fail-safe Zombie Identification method: Explain the Automotive Awesomeness Index to your favorite car enthusiast. If they nod in approval, you're talking to an Undead. (Take appropriate action.) "Non-Peak Manufacturing" example: [Son's friend parked a 2005 Highlander at my house this past weekend. I received permission to do some paint correction on the neglected finish (parked-under-trees-at-off-campus-rental-house level neglect - shudder). Ok that's not exactly true - I was given permission to 'wash' it - turned into more. Anyway, automotive finishes were on my mind. The 2005 factory paint cleaned up pretty well in 2021. How well will a middle-of-the-road 2021 factory paint job clean up in 2037? (I have a prediction.)]

  • Analoggrotto Does it include a date with Mary Barra?
  • Tassos ask me if I care.
  • ToolGuy • Nice vehicle, reasonable price, good writeup. I like your ALL CAPS. 🙂"my mid-trim EX tester is saddled with dummy buttons for a function that’s not there"• If you press the Dummy button, does a narcissist show up spouting grandiose comments? Lol.
  • MaintenanceCosts These are everywhere around here. I'm not sure the extra power over a CR-V hybrid is worth the fragile interior materials and the Kia dealership experience.
  • MaintenanceCosts It's such a shame about the unusable ergonomics. I kind of like the looks of this Camaro and by all accounts it's the best-driving of the current generation of ponycars. A manual 2SS would be a really fun toy if only I could see out of it enough to drive safely.