Semiconductor shortage: How the automotive industry can succeed

During the earliest days of the COVID-19 crisis, automotive headlines focused on the huge drop in vehicle demand. But for more than a year now, concerns have shifted to the supply side. Although vehicle orders have surged to unexpected heights, a shortage of automotive semiconductors is forcing OEMs to close production lines or remove some popular features, such as heated seats, from their offerings.

We first explored the automotive chip shortage in a May 2021 article, noting that a quick fix was likely impossible. The situation has worsened since then, and the recent drop in automotive revenues is largely occurring because OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers cannot procure sufficient quantities of chips and must delay vehicle production. While manufacturers of laptops, white goods, and other devices have also cut production because of semiconductor shortages, the repercussions in the automotive industry have been more severe. Some premium OEMs were able to safeguard profits with selective manufacturing and sales strategies designed to optimize margins. This strategy, however, may result in a shortage of lower-margin vehicles and could cause extreme fluctuations in demand for automotive chips.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has introduced further uncertainties to both the semiconductor supply chain and automotive demand. For instance, Ukraine supplies 25 to 35 percent of the world’s purified neon gas, and Russia supplies 25 to 30 percent of palladium, a rare metal used for semiconductors.

Another wrinkle: many semiconductors are transported by air, but transport costs have significantly increased while available shipping volume has dropped. And yet another problem: OEMs have been unable to obtain critical vehicle components, such as wiring harnesses, and have reduced their production volumes in response, which has added even more uncertainty by decreasing demand for some semiconductor-based components.

Given the ongoing instabilities in the semiconductor supply chain, the automotive industry should consider refining its strategy. Companies can start by focusing on the implications of three critical activities that form the foundation for strategic shortage management: the creation of strong technology maps, reliable short-term demand planning, and guidance for long-term demand planning.

Factors behind the escalating challenges in semiconductor supply

More than two years into the pandemic, the gap between chip supply and demand has widened across all semiconductor-enabled products. While sales of all consumer goods plummeted in the first half of 2020, and automotive sales dropped precipitously—up to 80 percent in some locations—demand rebounded more than expected later in the year, continued to grow in 2021, and remains strong today. The high-tech sector, in particular, has seen sales volumes increase, partly because of changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The growth in working from home, for instance, has contributed to a greater demand for wireless connectivity and PCs. These market shifts have rippled back to affect demand for semiconductors and other components. Across almost all industries, the demand for semiconductors in 2020 and 2021 exceeded prepandemic forecasts (Exhibit 1). And this means automotive

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