Product shortages have been common occurrences since the early days of the pandemic, when closed factories, disrupted supply chains and hoarding kept store shelves empty of toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizer.
Heading into the second year of life during COVID, worries about going without toilet paper might have diminished, but shortages in other areas haven’t. One of the items in which short supplies have had a global effect on a wide range of products and industries has been the computer microchip.
From cellphones to kitchen appliances, semiconductors are essential parts of equally essential items in every home, office and home office. Microchips also are vital components in motor vehicles, and their shortage has been delaying orders for police and emergency vehicles, an essential tool for some of the most essential workers.
“Due to the microchip shortage, the Crown Vic rises from the dead. You might see a few of these running around Slidell!” the Slidell Police Department in Louisiana stated in a Facebook post in October. A photo of a dirt-stained 2007 Ford Crown Victoria accompanied the post, and commenters eventually added listings of old, retired police vehicles for sale to the department’s thread. Those ads might come in handy, too; a Slidell police spokesman told WDSU-TV that the department ordered vehicles from Ford, Dodge and Chevrolet more than a year ago that haven’t been delivered.“With demand for vehicles at near record highs, the global semiconductor shortage has impacted all areas of our business,” Sabin Blake, manager of business and heritage at General Motors, tells Officer Magazine.
Why is there a shortage?
As COVID-19 began spreading around the world in late 2019 and early 2020, factories pumping out semiconductors were shut down, along with other industries and businesses, as areas went into lockdowns. During these initial global lockdowns and continuing through the pandemic, demand for computers and other tech skyrocketed. More people stuck inside meant home offices needed to be equipped to work better, and entertainment systems needed to be upgraded.
Once microchip factories reopened, they faced a massive backlog of orders. Manufacturers focused on semiconductors used in consumer electronics in order to meet the unforeseen, pandemic-driven demand.
While chipmakers shifted how their assembly lines operated in an effort to catch up with consumer electronic orders, they faced two more complications. First, auto manufacturers opened earlier than anticipated last year after they had been shuttered for about two months in the spring. Second, the changes factories made to better churn out semiconductors for Playstations and iPads meant assembly lines couldn’t be easily or quickly reverted to allow for the production of vehicle chips.
These developments didn’t have an immediate impact on automakers, which had its own order backlog to deal with once workers were back on the line. But by January, those ripples from the microchip industry finally had reached vehicle production and began generating their own ripples that would affect orders for police and emergency vehicles.
Shortage’s effect on police and emergency vehicles
The semiconductor shortage shares something in common with COVID-19: Neither discriminates. When it comes to vehicle chips, scarcity hasn’t been limited by make or model.
“There has not been a notable difference in the impact on government vehicles as compared with other segments of our business,” Blake says. “Although the situation remains complex and very fluid, we remain confident in our team’s ability to continue finding creative solutions to minimize the impact of the semiconductor shortages that have been impacting the industry.”
Car companies understand, however, that some of their customers—such as police departments and other law enforcement and emergency agencies—might require their vehicles on a faster timetable than others.
“Law enforcement needs their vehicles,” says Greg Ebel, police brand marketing manager for Ford Pro. “We can’t just say ‘Oh, sorry, we’re going to shift to other nameplates,’ so we still understand that law enforcement needs tools to do their jobs every day.”He adds: “As a company, we have to prioritize which vehicles can we build and what’s the most optimized approach.”
Prioritizing law enforcement and emergency vehicles at the production and shipping levels is something GM has been putting into practice, as well, Blake said. That can be a difficult prospect, though, when it comes to managing manufacturing logistics or dealing with supply chain disruptions for other parts.
Keeping the lines of communication open between the different shareholders in vehicle production—manufacturer, parts suppliers, customers—has been vital when it comes to navigating these uncharted waters. Not only can that help identify potential problems before they escalate, it can help discover creative workarounds.
“Stellantis continues to work closely with our suppliers to mitigate the manufacturing impacts caused by the various supply chain issues facing our industry,” says Jeff Hines, head of fleet operations for the automotive company that includes Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Fiat. “We have a team of people working seven days a week on technical solutions to help manage the shortage, and are working directly with our customers daily to develop a plan to best manage their orders and deliveries.”
GM also has teams working closely with suppliers, as well as internal and logistics partners, to find alternative shipping plans during this pandemic shortage. While these difficulties might close the door on how the company normally builds police vehicles, rethinking the manufacturing process in the face of the current semiconductor shortage has created new windows of opportunity.
“We have developed innovative solutions, like using a process where we produce vehicles without certain modules and hold shipment until semiconductors become available,” says Blake. “We then process the vehicles through the assembly plant for final completion. This allows us to minimize actual production losses and provide vehicles to our dealer partners and customers sooner.
“In addition, we are revising specific features to minimize semiconductor usages where possible. We are constantly monitoring the supply base, as well as our production plans, in an effort to limit delays.”
Blake emphasized that any effort to build these vehicles—police and civilian--during the shortage won’t come by sacrificing worker safety.
“The teams are also engaged and provided information on our COVID-19 safety protocols to help global suppliers on best practices to return to work safely,” he says. “It is important to note, that while we work through these issues, the safety of all team members and the people working within the greater supply chain is always our main priority.”
COVID safety precautions, much like the semiconductor shortage, might be the new normal for now. But the companies aren’t letting that deter them from getting cruisers out on patrol with officers around the country.
“It is most definitely a challenge,” says Ebel. “I know all of our suppliers and all of our teams working with them—we do the absolutely best job we can do, but still, we have these constraints. The industry is constrained as a whole. We’re working through it, and we’re still building law enforcement vehicles and taking orders.”
Solutions for departments
While automakers have been figuring out how to fulfill existing orders in the face of the microchip shortage, police departments and other law enforcement agencies have been trying to come up with their own alternatives.
Last year, the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office in Indiana began leasing patrol cars from Enterprise, according to the Daily Reporter in September. The agency previously leased detective cars from the car rental chain.
This year, plans were made to lease 15 more cars from Enterprise, but the sheriff’s office still hadn’t seen them by early September and hoped they would be delivered by October. The company won’t have any cars available in 2022.
“That plan that we had kind of goes awry a little,” Sheriff Brad Burkhart told the Reporter. Burkhart did find out a dealership in Fort Wayne that the department has bought vehicles from in the past has 20 extra cars available. In an attempt at a last-minute Hail Mary, the sheriff hopes to convince Enterprise to buy the cars from the dealership, then lease the vehicles to the department at lower monthly cost.
“I don’t know if I can make that happen or not,” Burkhart told the Reporter.
Looking to the future
As 2022 nears, COVID-19 still isn’t in the rearview mirror, and there is still uncertainty about when the semiconductor shortage will end. AlixPartners, a New York-based consulting firm, estimates the shortage will cost the auto industry $210 billion in revenue this year, according to a CNBC report from September. In January, the firm projected the amount would be $60.6 billion, increasing that number to $110 billion in May.
“The global semiconductor shortage continues to affect Ford’s North American plants—along with automakers and other industries around the world,” says Ebel. “Behind the scenes, we have teams working on how to maximize production, with a continued commitment to building every high-demand vehicle for our customers with the quality they expect.”
Outbreaks in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, where much of microchip production is located, as well as the worldwide spread of the delta variant, are some of the unforeseen factors that have kept the shortage going. AlixPartners forecasts that issues with semiconductors and other parts could extend to the second quarter of 2022 or longer.
How much longer? In July, the CEO of Intel, one of the world’s biggest semiconductor manufacturers, told investors that it could “take another one to two years before the industry can catch up with the demand,” according to Consumer Reports.
“We continue working closely with suppliers to address near-term production constraints, while Ford teams are working hard to maximize production,” says Ebel