Chips. How do you eat yours? My preference is for salt and vinegar. All fairly traditional, I know.

But there are, at the last count, some 12 different ways you can adorn the humble potato given magical qualities through some careful deep frying.

There’s cheesy chips; curry sauce and chips; salt and vinegar; peri peri salt; baked beans and chips; mushy peas; tartar sauce; tomato ketchup; mayonnaise and chips; gravy and chips; brown sauce; and salad cream.

Have I missed any?

Apparently, 25% of all British produced potatoes are turned into chips, which is around 1.5 million tonnes each year, or the equivalent of 125,000 full double decker buses. It goes to satisfy a craving for 380 million portions of fish and chips each year - which included me at the seaside over the weekend.

However, a different sort of chip is proving more elusive, which is leaving a souring taste.

While the chips we know and love are often referred to as French fries, pommes frites or potato wedges, the automotive chip is the semiconductor.

The semiconductor shortage

And the semiconductor is proving something of a problem. Or, rather, the lack of them is proving something of a problem.

The global supply chain, of which the semiconductor is part, was already under pressure thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was further compounded by winter storms in Texas in the United States that saw power supply disrupted and blacked out the oil state of America. Some 4.5 million homes and businesses were affected, including factories such as Samsung’s semiconductor plant.

But then to compound the issue further, Renesas, a big chip making operation in Japan, caught fire, affecting two thirds of the company’s automotive chip production. If supplies of semiconductors were thin on the ground before, they had suddenly become wafer thin. So thin, in fact, that vehicle manufacturers have moved to idle factories, which will have a direct impact on the availability of new cars.

How it's affecting production

Ford says that it will lose 1.1 million production globally this year. If you want a new Ford Transit Custom van, for example, delivery won’t be until 2022 because production at its Turkish plant was halted for three days earlier in April before suspending production between 19 April to 01 June. When production does resume, there will be the backlog of orders to clear first, before new orders are placed into the production line.

MINI’s Oxford plant is another to halt the making of cars temporarily. It has been working at full tilt to satisfy export demand in China and orders for the new electric MINI. It expects to reopen fully sometime in May. BMW has also temporarily shut down one of its German factories.

Just about everywhere you look, there’s a car maker looking at suspending production or halting production while it awaits these important semiconductors that have become so instrumental to the build of cars. It gives you some idea of how serious this shortage of chips really is. It will not only put pressure on the delivery date of your new car, but will also place upwards pressure on the value of used cars, too, meaning they will become more costly.

The used car price valuation specialist, cap hpi, has already spotted an uptick in used car prices. The company believes that during May we will see prices increasing for two reasons: one, to satisfy consumer demand as we come out of lockdown; and, two, increased demand for used vehicles thanks to the availability issues around new car supply. It’s a perfect storm for used car inflation.

So what does a semiconductor do?

Why are chips so important? What’s their role in a car? Well, many and varied is the answer.

Planning somewhere to go in your car by using the satnav system? Well, semiconductors will help you plot a route. Choosing your favourite radio station for the journey? Again, thank semiconductors for their part in your listening pleasure.

At every point in the construction of a car, semiconductors have a crucial role: the powertrain, for example, helping control engine management and assisting shifts in an automatic gearbox; in the control of the car itself through steering and chassis control systems, not to mention items such as anti-lock brake systems (ABS) through to park warning alerts: from powering up or down your electric windows to the regulation of your windscreen wiper speeds.

Here’s a good example of the chips at work from Bosch. A satnav system’s semiconductors constantly measure a car’s changes in direction as well as speed, which it then evaluates and updates the navigation system with the positional data from the GPS signal to identify the whereabouts of the vehicle.

Should that car then travel through a tunnel - causing interruption of the GPS signal - then the semiconductors step in to ensure seamless navigation. And the arrow on the satnav continues to progress nicely across the map, rather than becoming ‘lost’.

Because these sensors detect vehicle movement - both forward and side to side - they also help to detect vibrations (perhaps the car is being stolen and sets off the alarm) or can help trigger the automatic eCall emergency call system should the vehicle be involved in an accident (having measured unusual deceleration values, for instance).

So that’s just one example of how integral semiconductors are to the working of a modern car; and the more complex the vehicle, then the more semiconductors will feature in the car, particularly in modern electric vehicles with vital battery measurement, temperature control under charging and evaluating vehicle range.

So while us Brits enjoy chips with a variety of meals, from pizzas to steak et frites, cars not only enjoy the chips they are fed during manufacture, they cannot work without them.

And the shortage of such chips is the reason new car supply is being squeezed while there’s a rise in value of secondhand vehicles as demand increases thanks to new car scarcity.

Give it some thought next time you’re putting that vinegar on your chips; or cheese; or mayo...