Automakers Are Selling Cars Without Chips as They Struggle With A Shortage

Automakers are shipping cars without some computer chips, promising to add them later when the shortage eases.

Ford began selling F-150 in China last year
Last year, Ford offered F-150 buyers the option to get a pickup faster but without certain features. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

A persistent global shortage of semiconductor chips is forcing a growing number of automakers to sell their most popular models without all the chips they are designed to include.

Ford told its dealers it will start building Explorers, its best-selling SUV in the U.S., without the computer chips that enable rear-seat climate control, meaning that backseat passengers won’t be able to adjust the air conditioner and heat, Automotive News reported March 12. Ford said it will install the missing chips once they become available.

Ford has been shipping a few partially complete—but drivable—vehicles for about a year. Last spring, after the chip shortage forced the company to reduce production of its popular F-150 pickup trucks, it began offering customers an option to purchase the pickup without a fuel-saving feature called “start-stop,” which automatically turns a vehicle’s engine off when it comes to a complete stop.

Start-stop is a common feature in newer vehicles. General Motors made a similar compromise last year and shipped some Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups without the carmaker’s “Active Fuel Management” technology. The feature on those vehicles is designed boost fuel efficiency by up to 12 percent, according to GM.

In late 2021, GM announced that it would also have to forgo some comfort features, such as heated seats, in several models due to the chip shortage. Like Ford, GM promised to offer a free retrofit for those features once the chips are available.

Modern cars have numerous built-in electronic modules responsible for a wide range of functions, from navigation and parking camera to deploying airbags and heating seats. Each module has multiple chips. A new passenger car today can easily have more than 3,000 chips, according to the New York Times. 

However, as a whole the automobile sector accounts for a tiny share of chip demand—about 5 percent, according to automobile magazine Motor Trend. That in part explains the persistent shortage. During the pandemic, chipmakers’ production capacity was gobbled up by manufacturers of smartphones, gaming consoles and televisions as demand for at-home consumer electronics soared. Many chipmakers are still fulfilling those orders today, leaving them little room to supply the auto industry.

Automakers Are Selling Cars Without Chips as They Struggle With A Shortage