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Haynes’ World: why the microchip shortage doesn’t only affect new cars

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Haynes' World is a regular feature that takes a look at what the staff at Haynes are doing with their cars, bikes and other vehicles. This time, Rob Keenan explains why the global shortage of microchips isn't only affecting new cars.

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Car: 2019 BMW 2 Series

Owner: Rob Keenan

Unless you've had a distinct aversion to the news over the past couple of years (and I wouldn't blame you if you had), you'll be aware that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the car industry all manner of headaches.

One of the biggies is a shortage of what the press like to call 'semiconductors', otherwise known as microchips. As multiple countries locked down in 2020 and new car orders and production plummeted, computer chip production for cars was reined back. Instead, with everyone either working from home or just bored at home while on furlough, more chips were making their way into computers, tablets and game consoles.

Then, as lockdowns ended and the world decided it wanted to get back to normal, the car makers discovered that they couldn't get the chip makers to switch back to making components for their models quickly enough, and not in the volumes they required. Hence the new car supply crisis, where customers are having to wait around a year – and sometimes longer – for even the most mundane models to be delivered.

Used car values on the rise

I've never owned a new car before, preferring someone else to pick up the depreciation tab before I swoop in as the second, third, fourth or even fifth owner. Hence me buying my BMW 2 Series last August, just before prices of secondhand models started skyrocketing as a direct consequence of the new car supply issues.

My car still had around a year of the manufacturer warranty remaining, but that wasn't really at the front of my mind. I'd found the perfect car (I'd been hunting for quite a while) in the perfect colour (Sunset Orange). I was happy.

But then, a few months later, strange things started happening with the car's 'infotainment' system – in BMW's case it's called iDrive and it consists of a screen that sits on top of the dashboard, a row of buttons beneath it and a dial between the front seats with a selection of short-cut buttons around it.

BMW iDrive menu screen

The system was completely shutting down a few seconds after the engine was started. That meant the sat-nav, the reversing camera and parking sensors, the radio, CD and Bluetooth were unavailable. It only seemed to be happening if the car had been driven within the past couple of hours, and never from cold. If I pressed and held the volume button for 30 seconds the system would reboot and all would be fine for the rest of the journey.

This went from happening once every couple of weeks to every time the car was driven, even when it was cold. Rebooting it brought it back to life but sometimes that had to be done a couple of times before the system would stay alive.

iDrive booting up

With the car still under warranty, I booked it into a BMW dealer on the south coast. They initially thought the issue may be caused by water getting into the amplifier, located in the boot, but that wasn't it (much to my relief), so they updated the iDrive software to the latest version.

But even on the journey home, having stopped off at a supermarket, it was clear the update hadn't done anything. So back it went again, for the technicians to decide that a new iDrive head unit was needed.

The head unit sits behind the buttons below the screen. I have no idea what it looks like, but with the part number to hand and a bit of Googling, it must be inlaid with gold and rubies because it would cost me more than £2k if the car was out of warranty.

BMW iDrive head unit

I was beginning to wonder, though, if the 'semiconductor issues' would affect me. On one hand, my car's iDrive system has been superseded by a newer design that's fitted to the new 2 Series and other BMWs, so surely there would be plenty of spare units in stock? On the other hand, I was clutching at straws.

Somewhat predictably, the dealer called me back to say that there are no iDrive head units available and BMW in Germany can't give an ETA. So I asked the chap if I'm looking at a wait of six months... or maybe even a year. He couldn't answer that one but he tried to make my travails sound less painful by citing another customer's experience – he was waiting for delivery of a new fuel injection system, but because this also needed chips to work there was also no ETA for him, either. So his car was off the road indefinitely.

Have you been affected by the chip issue?

Microchips have been used in cars for decades now. If you have an older car you're probably happy to buy a used part from a breaker, but if you're not, getting the same factory-fresh item from dealers is proving a real headache at the moment.

I'm told that BMW – and no doubt many other car makers – provides 25 years of spare parts support for its models, so this issue is bound to be affecting many thousands of used car owners. Are you one of them? Let me know by emailing me here.