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Trump's China Tech War Backfires On Automakers As Chips Run Short

Automakers affected in other markets include Volkswagen, Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The chipmaking industry has always strained to keep up with sudden demand spikes. expand View Photos
The chipmaking industry has always strained to keep up with sudden demand spikes.

Automakers around the world are shutting assembly lines because of a global shortage of semiconductors that in some cases has been exacerbated by the Trump administration's actions against key Chinese chip factories, industry officials said.

The shortage, which caught much of the industry off-guard and could continue for many months, is now causing Ford Motor Co, Subaru Corp and Toyota Motor Corp to curtail production in the United States.

Automakers affected in other markets include Volkswagen, Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

The problems stem from a confluence of factors as auto manufacturers compete against the sprawling consumer electronics industry for chip supplies. Consumers have stocked up on laptops, gaming consoles and other electronic products during the pandemic, creating tight chip supplies throughout 2020.

They have also bought more cars than industry officials expected last spring, further straining supplies.

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In at least one case, the shortage ties back to President Donald Trump's policies aimed at curtailing technology transfers to China.

One automaker moved chip production from China's Semiconductor Manufacturing International, or SMIC, which was hit with U.S. government restrictions in December, to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co in Taiwan, which in turn was overbooked, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.

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Ford also will idle its Focus plant in Saarlouis, Germany, for a month starting next week because of chip shortages.

An auto supplier confirmed TSMC has been unable to keep up with demand.

"The systemic aspect of the crisis is giving us a headache," said a supplier executive, who asked not to be identified. "In some cases, we find substitution parts that could make us independent from TSMC, only to discover that the alternative wafer manufacturer has no capacity available."

TSMC and SMIC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On an earnings call with investors Thursday, TSMC Chief Executive C.C. Wei said there was a shortage of automotive chips made with "mature technology" and that it is working with customers "to mitigate the shortage impact."

It only takes the tiniest of chips to throw off production: a Ford plant in Kentucky that makes the Escape sport utility vehicle idled because of a shortage of a chip in the vehicle's brake system, a union official in the plant said.

Ford also will idle its Focus plant in Saarlouis, Germany, for a month starting next week because of chip shortages.

The situation is unlikely to improve quickly, since all chips, whether bound for a laptop or a Lexus, start life as a silicon wafer that takes about 90 days to process into a chip.

The chipmaking industry has always strained to keep up with sudden demand spikes. The factories that produce wafers cost tens of billions of dollars to build, and expanding their capacity can take up to a year for testing and qualifying complex tools.

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"The long and short of it is, demand is up about 50%. And there's no asset-intensive industry like ours that has 50% capacity lying around," said Mike Hogan, senior vice president at chip manufacturer GlobalFoundries and head of its automotive unit.

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