The automotive industry has been able to work through most supply disruptions, but the chip shortage that has brought persistent production stoppages since December -- with no end in sight -- has baffled even the most hardened veterans.
"I have been in this industry for 31 years, and this is a situation I have never experienced before," said Peter Schiefer, president of the automotive division at Infineon Technologies, one of the largest automotive semiconductor makers, especially for power electronics.
From Japan to Europe to North America, automakers have been forced to halt production lines for days or weeks. Some, including General Motors and Ford Motor, have resorted to omitting key components from vehicles to keep factories running. Others have strategically shifted toward building high-value vehicles at the expense of others -- but in a cruel twist, those more expensive cars also use more of the scarce microprocessors that are in such short supply.
There is no easy path to preventing such a situation in the future, experts said, because of the cost and complexity of the global semiconductor industry.
"In the short term, it's about trying to squeeze more capacity out of any place you can," said Phil Amsrud, a senior principal automotive semiconductor analyst at IHS Markit.
In the longer term, he and other experts said, the auto industry will have to rethink how it sources semiconductors and also wait for commitments to increase capacity from the EU, other governments and major chipmakers to become reality -- a process that will take years.
Automakers and analysts were optimistic that the shortage would work itself out in the second half of this year, but recently those predictions have changed for the worse.
A fire in mid-March at a Renesas factory in Japan that charred equipment and contaminated clean rooms. That followed a rare winter storm in Texas in February that knocked out power for up to a month at factories owned by NXP Semiconductors, Infineon and Samsung.
James Norris, an analyst with LMC Automotive, said at the end of March that the "latest incoming information suggests that production disruptions will be more severe than initially thought," with the shortage "expected to drag on until the closing months of 2021 and undermine the capacity for automakers to catch up lost volumes in the second half."
LMC is now forecasting that chip shortages will cost Europe 330,000 units this year, with the main losses at Daimler, Ford, Renault and Volkswagen Group.