There are dark semiconductor clouds on the automotive horizon. For over a decade, the "smart" features of today's automobiles have been run by reliable, trusted semiconductor chip designs.
Every braking system and airbag control requires semiconductors to function. The windows, AC, radio, door locks, and telematics all require these tried-and-true
microchipsto perform their functions.
To be honest, cars are pretty smart today, but not about the semiconductor supply chain.
Right now, the news is filled with reports of vehicle release delays and production slowdowns due to a shortage of semiconductor microchips because factories aren't producing enough of these reliable older-model chips to keep up with
vehicle production demand.
When the auto industry submits larger and larger orders for their must-have microchips, the semiconductor industry tells them to call back when their technology reaches 2010.
Cars manufactured today are made with decade-old microchip designs
Fortune, at the heart of the problem is that the automotive industry is using ancient, nearly outdated microchips. The chip designs they keep ordering are over 10 years old. They were cutting edge when the iPhone (the first one) was initially released.
Since then, microchips have been miniaturized and optimized for 10 years without the auto industry choosing to update. Unsurprisingly, microchip manufacturers don't want to keep making old chips for the auto industry.
With phone and device clients demanding the latest, smallest chips, they'd rather the auto industry catch up with the times. Microchip manufacturers are saying the auto industry should at least make it into the 2010s in terms of their demand for newly minted chip models.
Intel chief executive Pat Gelsinger told Fortune, "Rather than spending billions on new 'old' fabs, let's spend millions to help migrate designs to modern ones."
This may show some deep lack of understanding of just what drives the auto industry to make this decade-long decision to stick with the same chips instead of upgrading new car components every year like they do with smartphones.
Why new vehicles are being made with old chip models
New vehicles are amazing from their heads-up displays and touchless apps to their
automated safety systems.
How can these marvels of applied technology be seen as falling technologically behind? Why are cutting-edge vehicles like the R1T being delayed due to a shortage of 10-year-old microchips? Cars aren’t phones, because when it comes to cars, safety is everything.
Vehicles are designed with safety as the #1 priority. Every design is tested thousands of times, right down to the performance of reliable microchips.
Changing a single element of the design involves years of testing to be certain the change is safe for passengers, especially for something as integral as the control chips used in every individual system. In this case, tried-and-true is superior to the latest, fastest model.
The chips used in the auto industry now are known to be virtually error-free, and testing new chips to find this level of safety assurance can realistically take years.
Cars also don't need miniaturization, they stay about the same size. There's plenty of room inside the door frame, dash, or trunk to stash a small computer for every function.
Any size "microchip" will do the job, so they are not motivated by the need to miniaturize like the phone and tablet industry. Lastly, the new microchip designs might be smaller and faster, but the chips don't match pin-for-pin. You cannot simply remove an old chip and insert a new one.
Every upgraded system will require all-new circuits and these circuits might even extend to changes in the chassis design. That's a lot of new design work, fabrication, and years of testing to make this "simple" upgrade.
What should we expect from the car manufacturing microchip shortage?
The automotive need for old-model microchips is where the rock meets the hard place.
On one hand, Intel is right and it would be better for the auto industry to start the process of finding newer model chips for future vehicle designs.
On the other hand, chip manufacturers insist that it’s only "mere millions" that will be expended if automakers were to update their tech, versus the "billions" it would cost to build new chip factories for old-model chips.
This will be a serious overhaul of the smart vehicle systems—many of which are essential safety system controls—and will take years of investment from vehicle manufacturers across the globe to certify new microchips and matching vehicle designs as safe for consumer use.
Expect to see production slow-downs as the two industries fight to resolve the current old-model chip shortage.
This will likely be followed by some serious changes as the auto industry begins to adapt to the reasonable if massive demands to stay current with the production decade of their suppliers.