About Those “Chips” . . .

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You have no doubt heard about the “chip” (semiconductor) shortage – referring to the bits of silicon that are critical to the myriad electronic operations of a modern, computer-controlled vehicle – and that it is the shortage of these “chips” that has winnowed the supply of new vehicles.

Which it has.

Well, not the vehicles, themselves. These can and are being made; the problem is they – their various electronically-controlled systems – don’t work without “chips.”

What you may not have heard about – which I have on good authority – is that the “chip”  shortage is being dealt with in an expedient manner. Vehicle manufacturers are apparently using different “chips” than specified – whatever works – to get those vehicles working and so available, for buying.

It works on the same principle as in the pre-“chip” days when physical parts were sometimes functionally interchangeable between makes and models of vehicles. An ignition coil for a Ford might be literally the same coil as the one used by Chrysler – but with a different part number stamped on it.

It didn’t really matter what the number indicated because it was the same part.

Owners could take advantage of such interchangeability, too – even in cases where the parts weren’t exactly the same.

For example, a Quadrajet carburetor originally installed in a 1975 Corvette powered by a Chevy-built 350 V8 can be used in a 1979 Firebird with a Pontiac-made 400 V8, even though the fuel inlet is different (90 degrees vs. straight ahead) and some tuning will be needed to adjust it for the different fueling needs of a different-size engine.

But it bolts right up – more or less.

Similarly, it is also possible to install a 2004-R transmission from a mid-late 1980s Buick in that ’79 Firebird, even though the Pontiac never originally offered that particular transmission and the stamping on the case is wrong for that year/model car.  It’s not a big deal if you know what you’re doing – in part because the car has no idea what you’re doing.

There’s no computer to sense something’s been changed.

No sensors unhappy – because they’re are none there to sense anything.

Modern car drivetrains are integrated wholes and very specific in terms of their bits and pieces – including the “chips” that run the works. It’s not just the drivetrains, either. There are numerous “chips” embedded in all modern cars – since all modern cars have embedded computers that control practically everything – even the power windows (yes, really). Also things like seat heaters and – of course – the “infotainment” systems all new cars also have. The glowing touchscreens which have replaced discrete physical knobs and switches – which were once the mechanical interfaces used to turn on and off accessories such as the stereo and AC/heater, or adjust them.

All “chipped.”

And so, dependent on “chips.”

Without them, the various systems don’t work and that’s a big problem when you’re trying to sell cars, which are otherwise just a few thousand pounds of inert metal, plastic and glass.

Desperation breeds desperate measures.

Thus, according to my sources, whatever “chips” can be laid hands on right now are being used in order to get the things – the vehicles – to work, right now. In order to get them off the line and to the store – your local dealer – so as to be able to sell ’em.

It’s the sort of thing desperate car makers have done in the past, when they were short of parts – or money, to make their own parts.

For example, if you looked under the hood of a ’90s-era Land Rover Defender, you’d find a ’60s-era GM V8. In a way, this was good – since GM parts fit (and worked) and they usually cost less than “Land Rover” parts.

Interchangeability wasn’t an issue; in many ways, it was a plus.

So what’s the problem with using “chips” that work – even if they’re not exactly the specified (part number) “chip” for that particular application? Nothing – until there’s a problem.

Then there may be confusion.

Keeping track of  which car got which “chip” – on the fly – is not an easy thing. Which may sound like a surprising thing given how homogenous modern vehicles seem. Visually, this is so. Even mechanically, in that the types (and sizes) of engines and so on are fewer and more consolidated than before (e.g., you may have noticed that practically every car company is selling 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder engines).

But there are myriad, minute and specific electronic variances between cars of the same make and model – even those made during the same model year. Even if they were made on the same day. Different options – when it comes to electronics – means different “chips.”

Different part numbers.

Your particular car may need a very particular part at some point. And it may develop a particular problem that’s harder to sort out on account of chaos/confusion over which electronic parts – “chips” and so on – were used to make it work when it was made.

Which could make it harder to get it working, again.

My source within the businesses – who works in manufacturing – advises thinking twice before buying anything “chipped” . . . until this “chip” business is sorted out.

. . .

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36 COMMENTS

  1. You’d think the manufacturers would be paying some handsome bounties to salvage yards, for perfectly usable modules from crashed vehicles. You could mitigate some of the parts cross-referencing with more or less OE but repurposed parts. Just test them and certify them to perform as good as new.
    But that would force manufacturers and parts counter managers to admit, they oppose being eco-friendly, if it means losing on their bottom lines.

  2. Many industries have a documentation problem: module-level functional documentation just doesn’t exist. There are schematics, locked away in the Corporate Vault o’Secrets; if there’s an MCU (or FPGA, CPLD, etc.), there’s code for it, locked away… somewhere… not necessarily where anyone has access to it (and the module manufacturer may not even have the rights to it; the code may be owned by a third party). But there’s no document detailing what the module does, nor (in some cases) even what signals go in and out.
    In the past, this was mainly a problem for those who have to maintain antiquated equipment; reverse-engineering failed modules built around long-obsolete components was an interesting challenge.
    Now, well, it’s hitting closer to home for manufacturers, who need to be able to re-implement their various modules with alternative components in real time. (Qualifying the alternative implementations, identifying them, and tracking them are exciting new problems which are already widely not dealt with.)

  3. Great article Eric.

    It’s not just chips. It’s LEDs, capacitors, resistors, everything. And you are correct, substitutions are rampant and ill documented. We run substitutions and validation testing for said substitutions in parallel.

    If there is a problem, we won’t even know about it until months after cars arrive in customer’s hands.

    The amount of engineering change orders is up an order of magnitude due to all these shortages. What’s not up is engineering resources needed to process all these changes. It’s not just if our module has a problem. If other modules have a problem – this impacts our modules as well.

    We make steering wheel switches, center stack modules (radia and HVAC controls), and switch bank modules. In one recent example on the Grand Cherokee, the rear camera and front camera chips are in short supply. These are 100% take rate options. Front camera is used for “lane departure warning” and rear camera is used for rear park assist.

    Now our P/Ns have ballooned from 14 to 30 for the switch bank module since we now need to produce variants without lane departure, without rear park assist, or without both.

    It is nightmare trying to keep up with these lockdown related shortages. I don’t see it ever getting back to normalcy since lockdowns appear to be here to stay. The precedent has been set.

    Here’s some deeper thoughts:

    https://socialmediaiskillingyou.com/2021/02/20/covid-19s-impact-on-auto-industry/

  4. Speaking of parts, you better hope that you don’t find your car in a body shop due to an accident. My sister had her daughter park her car (2019 GMC Acadia) and she accidentally hit the gas pedal instead of the brake and ran it into the front porch of the house. The repair shop estimated damage was $6,800.00 and can’t be fixed. Since the steering wheel airbag deployed, the SMS sensor can’t be replaced. GM no longer makes the replacement and the front bumper cover is impossible to get. So the car sits in limbo. It’s not totaled and is not repairable.

    • Wow, but I’m not surprised. Globalization they say. What it really means is almost everything we use today has parts made throughout the world, mostly Asia, and then mostly china. I have been concerned about this for a long time, even telling my manufacturers to tread lightly on moving some of their manufacturing to china. The mega corps don’t listen and do it anyway. It’s too attractive to them to save/make more $.
      I believe they (we) will lose in the end. The key to me and my employees is to be well rounded enough to be able to suck up the loses that will come for sure and equipment that we won’t be able to get. It could get so much worse, even to the point of major infrastructure systems not being able to run. Think oil/gas, power gen, water systems, etc…. And all china would have to do is say “ooppps sorry mega corp., we have taken ownership of your factory, sucks to be you”.
      Again, I’ve begged and pleaded with my OEM’s to have a plan B in place and they shrug their shoulders.
      My guess is if china pulled the plug right now, we would survive with American ingenuity still possible, but with lots of pain in the short term. But we are certainly reaching a tipping point, if we (they) continue this madness. Only china knows if/when they will pull the plug.
      I have been looking for a very long term thinking manufacturer in my industry that gets/makes all parts in the ‘western world’ and haven’t found it.
      One would think if china did pull the plug that war would most likely follow, but I’m not so sure.

      • anon 1

        china owns the after market parts market, almost all of the parts come from china, i know of one auto wrecker that shut down because people could get new chinese after market parts cheaper.

        Mercedes switches up their designs periodically to try and stop china copying their parts and taking their business.

        These after market parts are often very poor quality, there is thousands of horror stories, a friend put a chinese crank in his VW air cooled engine, it ran poorly, he took it out and checked it, it was bent.

  5. The car’s internal network is actually quite generic. You can get stuff from different models or not even from cars to play nice with each other *IF* you have the tools to tell them to recognize each other and accept instructions from each other.

    What has happened is the manufacturers have deliberately locked owners out of that process. Aftermarket has some work arounds for popular to modify models last I looked.

  6. anon 1

    I heard another problem was manufacturers didn’t upgrade their vehicles to the latest fastest chips, they kept using the older cheaper chips to reduce costs, the chip suppliers concentrated on manufacturing the newer chips because of bigger profit margins, so the supply of older chips dried up, made even worse now because of manufactured supply line problems.

    over paying for a vehicle with obsolete, unobtanium chips, major grief…..throw it into the woods………manufacturers didn’t upgrade their vehicles to the latest fastest chips, they kept using the older cheaper chips to reduce costs,

    • Those older chips are better for the application. You want large chunky circuits to handle basic tasks in a harsh environment. Having a 16 bit computer operating at 2 mhz is going to operate your abs, engine or transmission just fine. You can put these chips in the engine bay and they still operate normally at 200F. Try putting your phone in the engine bay and see how well it lasts

      • Hi Anon,

        Better to have no “chips,” eh? Then you have a car with an almost infinite service life, in that it can be rebuilt/kept-running economically/practically almost indefinitely. I was thinking about this the other day while I was driving around in my almost 50-year-old Trans-Am. Most of the car’s mechanicals are original. All of its electronics – such as they are – are. How many 2022 model cars will be running in 50 years? Or even 20?

        • anon 1

          exactly no chips is way better.

          I have a 1978 super 7 clone with a 4 cyl. Lampredi twin cam engine hemi engine, no abs, no airbags, no power brakes or power steering, no computer, a Weber carburetor with a manual choke, a distributor with points and condenser and centrifugal advance, no vacuum lines, no doors, no windows, very easy to work on very simple, fiberglass and aluminum body so can’t rust, tube frame for stiffness, strength, less weight so great fuel economy . more fun to drive then any other car.

          A 1913 Bugatti which is very similar in size, weight, spec and design to a super 7 , is even better, it has a magneto so no need for a battery, no starter or generator, no cooling fan, very simple, less things to go wrong, 109 years later cars are way worse.

          This 109 year old all mechanical 1913 Bugatti type 22 is still daily driven and the residual value is 2 million dollars, it is beautifully engineered built to last, lots of brass and copper, real quality, an investment.

          this era….. now today will be known as the era of junk and lies….

          see what real quality looks like from the distant past……

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVl3cEkSSo0

      • anon 1

        the chip suppliers concentrated on manufacturing the newer chips because of bigger profit margins, so the supply of older chips dried up……so how will you get replacement chips?

        Those older chips are better for the application. You want large chunky circuits to handle basic tasks in a harsh environment. Having a 16 bit computer operating at 2 mhz is going to operate your abs, engine or transmission just fine. You can put these chips in the engine bay and they still operate normally at 200F.

        so the new chips don’t work and you can’t get the old chips = the end of icv…a good trick……that is how you get rid of icv’s…….interesting…..a few rich will have ev’s the useless eaters will walk……

        • anon 1

          no old chips for icv’s (icv’s can’t use the newer chips), all icv’s now require chips = no icv’s, now we know how they end icv’s,

          plus this…..

          It is impossible to replace ICV with EV’s because of this…………..global capacity for the materials for EV batteries can’t replace even 3% of fossil fuel vehicles.
          that is the whole point of getting rid of ICV’s, ending useless eater’s mobility (green agenda haha, see they lied to you again) a few very rich will drive EV’s, gates will still drive his 959 Porsche, the surviving 500 million useless eaters will walk………

  7. anon 1

    If you want to get away from computers buy a diesel powered vehicle with a mechanical injection pump.

    A Mk 1 VW Golf came with a 1.6 lt. na diesel (no computer) and a 5 speed trans. it got 60 mpg hiway, it can also run on multiple fuels. These can easily last 300,000 miles with no rebuild.

    A Mk 1 VW pickup was also available with a diesel. These are appreciating in price and are collectible.

  8. That reminds me of an interesting story re: part numbers.
    Was traveling with my wife and kids, cross-country, in a diesel RV, when there was a squealing and then warning light on the dash. ohh ooo, in the middle of no-where. I was able to continue to drive to the next exit but the temp was creeping up. Made it. Investigation revealed a broken serpentine belt. Got a new one, start her up, squeal, snap, again. Found the ac compressor locked solid, ohh ooo.
    Had it towed to a repair shop, they confirmed my assessment. Small shop, and they had no way to find the compressor under their normal suppliers, why? Because it had a part number on it they were not familiar with.
    The company that built my unit was out of biz due to the ’08 crash, but the chassis manuf. was not and I theorized that the chassis manuf. was the one that built the whole chassis with engine/trans to the coach manuf. So I called the chassis manuf., and I asked when can I get a compressor. 8 weeks they said!!! I said wait a minute, you buy the engine from CAT, did you or they put the compressor on the engine? We do. OK, then who do you buy it from, there can’t be too many different manuf. They said we can’t tell you that, 8 weeks. OMG!!!!
    Dude, I’m stuck with my family in the middle of Kansas, please tell me. He did, and it ended up being a very standard GM part number, that guess what? Even GM didn’t make it. Found the OEM part number, and low an behold, tons of units in stock in KS. On the road with about 2-3 days down-time, almost all of it trying to solve the OEM part number problem. Wow.

    • anon 1

      I tried finding an o-ring to seal a fuel sender unit to the gas tank for a 1967 Lotus Cortina fuel tank in a 1978 lotus 7 clone kit car. It took 2 days driving around, I took the sender unit so they could see the size, most places wanted a part number, what a nightmare, 1st I had to identify the fuel tank and sender, that entailed finding out how these cars were originally built, equipped, then search for a part number, then I found out it is almost impossible to get, most part places couldn’t be bothered to even try, finally a store that specializes in pipes, hoses, seals etc. gave me an o-ring that was a slightly smaller diameter, it fit and worked perfectly. If you are trying to find a hard to find part you have to go through this process.
      I have heard Mercedes is the only manufacturer that will supply parts for any of their vehicles, no matter how old.

      • I hate that so much stuff has been moved behind counters and can only be looked up in a computer system. Look, it’s a standard viton O-ring, just let me look at the steel box with all the sizes and match it up is just something foreign to these people. The next issue is that they’ll often no longer have the steel box with all the common sizes in it.

        I had an issue with a bleed screw some years back. The hex got stripped in my efforts to get it out. But I got it out. Nobody had a simple box of bleed screws. all special order. So I filed the hex down to a smaller size hex and re-used it. Less time than waiting for it ‘special order’.

        Anyway for generic parts like o-rings and such there’s McMaster-Carr but expect to pay. They’ll at least have it. But again that’s order and wait, but sometimes they’ll have same day delivery, at least to my employers they have. Never ordered from them as a private individual.

        • Brent, that reminds me of when I needed a radiator cap for my tractor, which has a Mitsubishit diesel engine. I bring the old cap into NAPA and ask if they can match one up, and even gave ’em the pressure rating. The guy didn’t know where to begine- so, being it’s small and Japanese and rather generic, I tell him “Try one for a 1978 Datsun B210”- He looks it up on the ‘puter..finds it in stock…looks good to me, so I take it, and VOILA! A <$10 cap instead of the Case-IH dealer's c. $50 one…..

          • anon 1

            Try finding a rebuild kit for a Weber carburetor, you will probably have to buy it online. Then try and someone to rebuild it, it is difficult, I did find one place that would rebuild it, $200.00 for parts and $500.00 labor. I just bought the kit online for $30 and will do it myself. $500.00 labor…..should start a business…..

            • Hi Anon,

              I have a spare kit for the Quadrajet under the hood of my Trans Am (as well as a couple of spare QJets, too). Thankfully, it is still easy – and inexpensive – to get parts for these carburetors. In part because they are still being made, new. Holleys are similar. That said, I think it’s probably a good idea to buy enough in the way of service parts now – while you can – to tide you over for say the next 30 years. Because it may be a long haul.

              • anon 1

                Hi Eric,

                Stocking up now on old parts is a great idea.

                The car I have with the Weber carburetor was upgraded by the PO from fuel injection to carburation (better intake manifold = more power), it is simpler then fuel injection so less problems, it came with a weber 34 dfi which I got the rebuild kit for, instead of getting them rebuilt some people buy chinese copies for $300, but it is usually a bad experience, while looking for a solution I found a weber 40 dfi 5, which was designed for a 1968 Ferrari 365 (which uses 6) but was on a Daimler 2.5 lt. V8, it was a great upgrade, it flows 360 cfm and has synchronis 2 barrels. plus I have a spare carburetor…..

        • We have a small chain named Bearing Wholesalers in our little town outside Melbourne Aus. In addition to bearings, they have o rings, tools, lubes, nuts and bolts, and trailer parts. I needed an O ring for a GM power steering rack where the PS pump lines attach. Went to the GM dealer across the road, didn’t have it. Bloke at BW took me to the back part of the shop where he had tons of all sizes O rings, and I found what I needed for 10% of the cost an auto parts supplier wanted.

  9. anon 1

    These new vehicles sound like laptops, very difficult to repair because:

    There is no standards every laptop manufacturer did their own thing, very little in common, so parts are often manufacturer specific. Then it gets worse, each model of laptop from the same manufacturer used unique parts, plus the same model of laptop could have different parts depending on the month it was made, a nightmare.

    So you have to figure out which part is defective, then try and identify it, then you probably can’t find it, it is impossible to find, plus the huge cost of the labor to go through the whole process.

    Just throw it in the woods, it is far cheaper to buy a new one. Cell phones are exactly the same story. It looks like new vehicles have the same problems now, but it isn’t a $400 laptop you are throwing into the woods it is a $90,000 tesla.

    Another problem ….. Electronic components have a limited life, even if you do not use them. It’s the nature of the P-N junction that forms a transistor.
    So the new electric vehicles like the new computerized ice vehicles will have a limited lifespan, when these electronics fail the car will be scrap, too expensive to fix, more recycling and waste. Only buy cars with no computers.

    This electronic age with chips and 24/7 surveillance is a nightmare, a curse, we were better of in the mechanical age, when they built real quality products not disposable electronic junk.

    A purely mechanical 1913 Bugatti type 22 is a work of art, 108 years old and daily driven. A Tesla is scrap after 10 years.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVl3cEkSSo0

    • Most laptops are super easy to fix if you have small screwdrivers and if you’re gentle with the plastic parts. Go to youtube and type in the model of your laptop and watch someone else tear one down first so you’ll know where the hidden screws are. Ebay has tons of laptop parts and laptops are really just the same as desktops when it comes to troubleshooting.

      Don’t throw it away, it’s usually something easy.
      Sometimes it’s as simple as resetting the ram or replacing a worn out hard drive.
      Too may good computers get thrown in the land fill for no good reason.

  10. I couldn’t even imagine what a modern-day Hollander book might look like today- if they still had to print them on paper! Then again, with interchangeability being much less common today…maybe a physical Hollander would be about as thick as a 7th-grader’s book report…..

    But, man! Those were the days- when ya’d go to the junkyard and they’d whip out that Hollander book- thicker than a NYC phone book, and find whatever ya needed…and the part would likely still be good, even if it came off of a 20 year-old car that had been sitting in the yard for 10 years, because it was made of metal, and was electro-mechanical or just mechanical…and not electronic.

    • There are many cross over parts still. Rock Auto does a pretty good job with that. It will show you what other cars it fits besides yours.

        • I didn’t know about that feature, but I have successfully used Rock Auto to buy parts in the past. They’re a great supply house, I second the recommendation.

          I would trust any of their recommendations.

          I haven’t tried to buy anything from them since before covid, however, so I can’t speak to their current inventory/supply chain.

  11. Being mostly sane, and not often actually drunk, or otherwise impaired, I’m simply astonished that a new car CAN be sold. Just imagine how much work you could do on an older model for the price of a new one. With monthly payments on a loan somewhere around $300, that’s about the price of a typical repair bill, every month. Which MAY be needed once or twice a year. Leaving $3000 per year for serous repair or rebuilding for the life of your 7 year loan, $21,000, which MAY be needed every 5-10 years or so. I imagine I could put my 97 Tacoma in near new condition for less than that. And the only chip(s) it might have are in the ECU.

  12. A lot of the reason for the chips is because of the bus. Specifically the CANBUS that is the communications network for the vehicle. Back when power windows were a luxury item they had descrete wires run from the armrest to the motor. Acutally, back in 1953 they were hydraulic lines, not wires. As doors got thinner, it got harder to run all those wires, especially the driver’s door with all the window controls. The CANBUS was already there, so why not extend it into the door to run the windows too? And now that you’ve done that, why not just order a pre-built assembly from your supplier?

    Windows were just the start. Soon everything was running on the CANBUS because it saved time on the final assembly line. And it was easy to design in extra features like power seat controls on the door card instead of down on the seat. Then add a little bit of code to the ECM and another couple of buttons and now you have memory seats, another feature that is easy to demonstrate in the showroom. And now when you put it in “track mode” the dash layout changes, the mood lights turn red and the fuel economy goes to hell. All at the push of a button you’ll probably only use twice. Three times if you’re trying to impress your grandkids or the mistress.

    • I work building satellites, and we typically use the MIL-STD-1553 bus. However, with some high risk projects (meaning the customer will accept a large degree of risk for short production cycle, or technology demonstration, or lowest possible cost) we will use automotive grade parts and the CANBUS. Actually, aside from the lack of radiation tolerance, automotive parts are rather rugged. (Only thing more rugged is aerospace parts – in airplanes)

      • Many drone components use CANBUS to communicate with the autopilot. The integrated GPS-compass module on my latest build for example. Seems fairly plug and play but I’m using parts from the same supplier.

  13. ‘the car has no idea what you’re doing’ — eric

    Not for now. But the 2,702-page bipartisan infrastructure bill mandates drunk driving prevention systems in vehicles by 2025.

    ‘Advanced alcohol detection systems use sensors integrated into a car that passively determine if the person behind the wheel is drunk,’ crowed MADD.

    ‘Driver monitoring systems that monitor the driver’s head and eyes, typically using a camera or other sensors’ is one example offered by MADD.

    So as the camera watches your darting, bloodshot eyes, and the microphone records you cursing as you bumble and fumble, Alexa pipes up, an accusatory note replacing her normally fetching dulcet tones: ‘Eric … have you been drinking again?

    Ayyyyyyy … Karen-on-a-chip has literally hijacked your vehicle and your life.

    And they ask me why I shoot ketamine …

    • Can’t wait till this “drunk driving detection” feature malfunctions and strands someone in the cold and snow. Hopefully it’ll be some politician’s kid; karma in action.

    • “…Alexa pipes up, an accusatory note replacing her normally fetching dulcet tones: ‘Eric … have you been drinking again?'”

      Precisely the purpose of the ubiquitous twonkies: To be your electronic babysitter as an adult child of the State.

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