As seen on:

SMH Logo News Logo

Call 1300 303 181

Australia’s Best New Car News, Reviews and Buying Advice


What’s Behind The Automotive Supply Chain Shortage?

One thing that I’ve noticed (and perhaps you have too) is that sometimes, car manufacturers can’t quite pump out as many units as they had planned, meaning that sometimes, we have to wait for a great new model to hit the Australian market – or else we find that when it does get here, it might not quite have all the electronic features that had been planned.  What’s behind all that?  This hasn’t happened before for as long as I can remember, including during the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–08. 

The problem seems to be that the automotive manufacturers can’t get hold of enough computer chips (semiconductors) to produce as much as they want to.  After all, car manufacturers make cars, not computer chips, so they have to get them from somewhere else.  These semiconductors are used in just about everything inside a new car, from the power steering through to the entertainment system, to say nothing of all the driver aids and sensors that every modern car comes with. Given their importance to motoring safety and convenience, a shortage of semiconductors obviously has an effect on the amount of cars that can be produced.

Like many things, you can blame it on COVID-19.  No, you really can.  It’s a supply and demand thing.  The problem is that the companies producing these silicone-based semiconductors can only make a finite number of these chips in a given amount of time.  After the semiconductors have been made, they have to be shipped on to the companies that put them into cars… and into other things.  During all the lockdowns and other madness of the pandemic, two things happened.  The first is that productivity in factories and in the supply chain slowed down dramatically because of the newly introduced hygiene measures. Extra cleaning meant there was less time to make, check and pack the semiconductors, staff shortages meant fewer people to do the work, and quarantines and travel restrictions meant that the products couldn’t be shipped as quickly.  So the semiconductor factories couldn’t produce as much.  This slowdown was particularly noticeable in the countries where the semiconductors were made – mostly in the East and Southeast Asia, which had stricter and stronger lockdown measures.  So that was one reason.

The second reason why COVID-19 led to a supply shortage was because the semiconductor chips are used for every single electronic device you can imagine (and in some you can’t imagine as well).  Now, what happened during the lockdown?  We weren’t driving as much, and we all had to stay home for work and for entertainment.  This meant that a lot of people invested in better home computer systems that allowed them to work from home or work remotely, and quite a few people decided to upgrade (or get into) gaming equipment.  I know I bought some new tech over this time, and you might have done so as well.  Given that the demand for new cars was going down but the demand for home-based electronics was rocketing, you can guess where the makers of the semiconductors decided to channel their products.  It didn’t help that a lot of car companies reputedly cancelled a bunch of orders at the start of the pandemic into the bargain.

Now, this slowdown was a bottleneck in the supply chain.  Things have calmed down at the supply end of the supply chain, but the after-effects are still being felt in the automotive industry, and it’s going to take a while for this to catch up.  However, things are taking longer to catch up than expected for a couple of other reasons.  One of them is strictly car-related.  There has been a push towards more electric vehicles, both BEVs and hybrids.  These cars need more silicon chips and semiconductors than ICE vehicles, and the supply of these chips is still catching up.

The other reason why it’s taking so long for supply to go back to normal is because of the Ukrainian conflict.  When armed conflicts break out, there is inevitably a huge demand for bigger, better and more sophisticated tech.  This is nothing new, and a lot of today’s big-name car manufacturers cut their teeth on producing war-related equipment 100 or so years ago.  However, this means that companies producing the componentry – such as silicone chips and semiconductors – will be on the hunt for big contracts from governmental defence departments, as these pay quite well.  Once again, this means that there aren’t as many semiconductors available for the automotive industry.

Given that Pestilence and War have led to Shortage, it would be easy to get gloomy and believe that The End Is Nigh, but I prefer to be optimistic.  If we’re patient, I think things will get better.  Stay cheerful and keep on driving safely!

Alloy Wheels 101

Many new models trundling out of car showrooms these days sit proudly on alloy wheels, which are usually measured in inches (only two other things are habitually measured in inches these days, with the other two being display/TV/computer monitor screens and a gentleman’s 11th finger).  These alloys look very pretty but do they have any other advantages other than simple aesthetics?

Alloy wheels are often contrasted with steel wheels.  Here, the pedantic geek in me has to stand up to tell you that, technically speaking, steel is an alloy of iron and carbon (and other bits, such as chromium, vanadium, boron, tungsten, titanium and other obscure elements on the period table).  It’s probably one of the most common alloys, though it’s not the oldest: that honour goes to bronze (an alloy of tin and copper) and electrum (an alloy of gold and silver that can occur naturally).  There are lots of alloys that have been used since ancient times, and the ability to create them is one of the earliest metalworking technologies out there*. 

To be more precise, alloy wheels are made from alloys of aluminium or magnesium.  This is why you’ll hear some people referring to mag wheels or mag-alloy wheels; mag is an abbreviation of “magnesium alloy”.  This term probably dates back to the 1960s, which is when these wheels, previously only available to the car racing community, hit the market.

Steel wheels have their benefits, such as being cheaper and being easier to bang back into shape after a serious ding.  However, they’re usually only fitted to cheaper cars and entry-level variants (if at all), and will never be found on any luxury vehicle worth its leather seats.  So why do they use them? 

The metals used to make alloy wheels tend to be a lot lighter, but they still have the strength needed to stand up to the rigours of driving.  Getting the weight down is important to car designers (the weight of the vehicle, that is, not the designers) for a number of reasons. Firstly, lowering the unsprung weight of the vehicle makes things easier for the suspension, which, in turn, makes the car handle a lot better.  So that’s definitely a good reason for fitting a car with alloy wheels.  Being lighter also improves the fuel efficiency of the vehicles they’re fitted to because the lighter something is, the less energy it takes to move it.  Needing less force to get moving also means that acceleration gets better. The reverse is true as well: objects that don’t weight as much are easier to stop and/or slow down.

Having less weight also means that a vehicle can have bigger wheels without adding extra kilos, and the general thinking is that if it’s measured in inches, bigger is better.**  

However, having less weight is not the only advantage.  The aluminium and magnesium alloys have better ability to conduct heat away from the brakes, meaning that the brakes perform better.  If you’ve got an aluminium frying pan and a cast iron or steel skillet in your kitchen, you can see this easily.  If you get them both up to the same temperature then whip them off the heat, the aluminium pan will cool down more quickly than the steel one (have your oven mitts handy).  However, because of the greater strength of the aluminium or magnesium alloy, the wheels can be made with an open design – you know, those pretty stars and spokes.  Yes, these are a lot more aesthetically pleasing than a plain old steel wheel but this sort of design isn’t just beautiful but functional as well.  The open design allows the aluminium or magnesium alloy to release some of the heat generated by braking to the air, and the more surface area it’s got, the more heat it will lose.

The main ways of making alloy wheels are forging and casting.  Forging involves heating up the metal or alloy, rolling it, hammering it and generally mashing it about.  This process of heating, etc. makes the alloy grow stronger (I can see a nice little metaphor for a life lesson in there).  However, it’s a long and complicated process, and is more costly than casting.  Casting is where molten metal is poured into a mould, where it hardens.  Cast alloy wheels are cheaper and easier to produce en masse, but they aren’t quite as tough as forged alloy wheels.

Of course, these days, there is a new kid on the wheel block: carbon fibre.  Carbon fibre is even lighter than aluminium or magnesium alloys while still being super tough (diamond is pure carbon, remember).  Carbon is also better able to withstand bumps without forming microcracks, meaning that it’s tougher in the long run.  However, carbon fibre is a lot more expensive.  Will we see carbon fibre becoming more common (and cheaper) as time goes by?  I suspect we will, especially as EVs weigh a lot more than ICE vehicles, and thus cause more wear and tear on our roads, so trimming the weight down will be important (there’s also part of me that wonders if carbon fibre could be a way to sequester carbon, ultimately leading less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but this part is probably wrong).  Anyway, in EVs, regenerative braking transforms a lot of the kinetic energy lost during braking into electrical potential energy rather than heat energy, so there’s no need for open wheel designs that dissipate more heat. Instead, the designers can go for aerodynamics for even better efficiency (and look even cooler).  It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

* Could somebody please inform the writers of Amazon’s The Rings of Power of this fact?

** This may be true of wheels and screens, but speaking as a straight woman, it’s not true of the third.  Seriously, size really doesn’t matter.

What Is Synthetic Fuel?

You’ve probably heard that the way that the oil and gas fields that produce the petrol and diesel we put in our internal combustion engine (ICE) cars were once ancient forests that were somehow buried and transformed into the form they are in today.  You may have wondered whether it would be able to make something chemically identical to crude oil or refined oil in the lab, given that we know the chemical formula for petrol and diesel.

Well, you aren’t alone in wondering whether that could be possible. The truth is that it is possible to make petrol and diesel artificially in the lab without taking the aeons of time involved in fossil fuels.  The result is called synthetic fuel or synfuel.

Synthetic fuel differs from biofuels such as ethanol because it is designed to be completely chemically identical to ordinary bog-standard fossil fuel petrol.  This means that it can be used as is in a car with an unmodified internal combustion engine without being blended, which is what happens with biofuels (you know – E10 is 10% ethanol and 90% fossil fuel petrol).

Synthetic fuel is nothing new. In fact, the idea of making petrol for cars (and planes) from something else was tried successfully back in 1930s Germany, except that they used coal as their starting feedstock.  This was one reason why the German army was such a threat during World War 2: they could manufacture their own synfuel out of coal, which they had, rather than relying on oil wells overseas and the associated supply chain.  However, this method is unlikely to be used these days, as coal is still a type of fossil fuel and wouldn’t suit the purposes.  

The process of making synthetic fuel or synfuel starts with the very common gas hydrogen. The hydrogen is then combined with carbon (carbon monoxide) to make syngas (chemically identical to natural gas but made artificially). This is where the exciting part of synfuel comes in, as the process can either take the carbon from some source or it can even capture the carbon out of the atmosphere. This means that when the synfuel is used in an internal combustion engine, the carbon is just going back into the atmosphere where it originally came from rather than adding new carbon. (OK, you could argue, like one of my relatives does, that what’s in fossil fuels was originally in the atmosphere when that ancient forest was green and growing, but that’s another topic and another debate altogether that I won’t get into here.) Anyway, syngas is made up of hydrogen and carbon molecules (it’s a hydrocarbon, as opposed to a carbohydrate) and can be messed about with to make different types of fuel, including petrol.

The three main ways of producing synfuel are biomass to liquid, power (or electricity) to liquid and sun to liquid.

The biomass to liquid process uses organic matter as a feedstock, which provides the hydrogen and the carbon. This organic matter doesn’t have to be an oil-producing crop, which is what happens with some types of biofuel.  Instead, agricultural waste matter can be used as a feedstock, as can domestic waste. In fact, if the idea of synfuel catches on and becomes more widespread, they’ll be able to use what’s in the landfills and what we chuck out. This avoids the problem of deciding whether good crop-producing agricultural land should go to producing an oil crop to power internal combustion engines or to producing food. This type of synfuel can be referred to as biofuel, although “biofuel” is a confusing term that covers ethanol as well as biodiesel, so it’s best avoided.

Power to liquid production produces the type of syngas known as e-fuel. In this process, electricity (which can be generated by renewable means, such as wind or solar) splits a water molecule to get hydrogen and oxygen, and the hydrogen is then combined with carbon from the atmosphere. The main byproduct is oxygen, and if the process can use renewable sources of energy, then it’s as close to carbon neutral as petrol can be.

Sun to liquid production is less common. In this process, a reactor catches the heat energy of the sun (not photovoltaic energy or solar power) and uses that energy to convert water and CO2 into syngas.

I think it’s highly likely that synthetic fuel is going to become more common, as a lot of us know that ICE vehicles suit our lifestyles and needs best (tradies, for example), who can’t afford to take large chunks out of their working days to recharge, travel a lot and need something that will take all the gear needed for their work.  This is because Formula 1 racing is planning to use it to power all its ICE racing cars, hopefully by 2026.  We’ve seen a lot of technology that started off in the racing world making its way over to general use, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.  In addition, Porsche has bankrolled a synthetic fuel plant in Chile that uses wind power and the power-to-liquid method.  This opened at the end of last year (2022) with plans to produce 11,000 barrels of synfuel this year.

Given that Australia has a lot of sunshine and the potential for using it for either the sun-to-liquid or the power-to-liquid process (with the help of solar panels), it’s not surprising that they’re setting up a plant in Tasmania (funded by Porsche again), which is due to kick into action in 2026.  Watch this space!

Why You Need To Stay Alert During Winter (Even In A Car With All The Driver Assistance Features)

No review of any car produced from 2010 onwards would be complete without a list, or at least a partial list, of some of the driver aids.  Most of us have noticed that cars have become more electronic and have more computer-controlled gadgets (and we may have grumbled about it if we are DIY mechanics who know how to use a spanner but go to pieces when confronted with anything containing a chip).  The list of driver aids seems to be getting longer and longer, starting with basic things like rear view cameras and going on to things like traffic sign recognition, lane departure correction and more. 

There’s no denying that these aids are very useful – I love the reversing camera we fitted onto our Honda Jazz – but it’s important that we don’t become too reliant on them.  Even though it may seem as though the clever people who design these systems and sensors are trying to replicate a horse (autonomous, 360° audio warning system, 210° cameras, voice activation, carbon-neutral, emission-free, running on 100% biofuel and completely biodegradable), one has to remember that your car isn’t actually intelligent – like KITT from Knight Rider – and isn’t a horse, and those sensors and systems can have problems in certain conditions.

These conditions tend to crop up a lot in wintertime – the time when driving is most hazardous.  One reason why this happens is because the sensors are located on the outside of the vehicle (obviously).  On wet days, mud and slush gets thrown up over your car by other vehicles on the road, and this can obscure the sensor. Even something as simple as condensation can cloud the sensors, not only in its own right but also because the condensation can collect dust and because that condensation can freeze if the temperatures go below zero.  This is annoying in the case of cameras but absolutely wreaks havoc on all of the other safety systems that rely on the cameras.

The field of image recognition is a hot one for experts working in the field of AI and smart machines.  However, this is because we can do it all the time without thinking about it.  That’s why those CAPTCHA “prove you’re not a robot” tests often ask you to select all the squares with images of things like motorbikes and traffic signals. (Some suspect that your answers don’t just prove that you’re human but they’re also used to train computers to recognize these items, which is probably why you’re asked to identify things that a smart car might have to identify.)  If you’re paying attention, you can identify an oncoming truck on a rainy day, and you can rely on a range of cues to tell you where the side of the road is.  Computers don’t quite have this ability, as rain, hail, snow, slush and fog make things tricky.  If your car’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) have been trained on scenes of, say, traffic signs or lane markings that were taken on sunny days, the system will struggle to recognise a traffic sign that’s obscured by fog, has a possum sitting on top of it, has snow or frost covering some of it, or has been used as a target by someone with a shotgun. ADAS can’t extrapolate where the lanes are from a little glimpse of road that’s otherwise covered by snow or piles of hail.

Can you see the lanes? ADAS sensors can’t.

Systems based on radar, such as pedestrian detection and advance collision warning systems also have trouble in cold, wet windy weather.  Although fog and frost aren’t a problem for radar, rain, snow and hail are problems.  This is because of the way radar works: the radio waves go out, hit something and bounce back, and the time between the signal going out and when it comes back can be used to calculate the distance (or the speed, in the case of police radar systems).  However, the radio waves will bounce off anything and be scattered by anything, whether that thing is a hailstone or a heavy truck.  Contrary to the rumour going around that radar systems don’t work in the rain, the truth is that they do work – they just don’t work as well.  This means that if your car’s ADAS is radar-based, then it might not do quite as good a job on a rainy day.

What this means for you as a driver is that during winter driving conditions, you need to be extra alert – as alert as you would be if you didn’t have all those ADAS in place.  For years, we’ve been told that during winter driving conditions, it’s important to slow down and take extra care, and this advice still holds even if your car has all the ADAS bells and whistles.  As all car manufacturers are quick to point out, even the fanciest systems are not intended to replace good driving and safety is ultimately the responsibility of the driver.

If you have those sensors and you like to use them (like me and my reversing camera), you may need to wipe them down a bit more often during winter (a paper towel will do the trick).  If you’ve got frost on the sensor – which will probably happen if you have frost on your windscreen – then give the sensor a bit of a slosh with the warm water you have probably used to get the ice off your windscreen. Then drive safely!