I have a sense that a big portion of the world is about to get a harsh lesson in automotive anatomy, even as it watches a war unfolding before it.
I'm talking about wire harnesses, the labor-intensive, complex and largely unseen central nervous system of every automobile for the last century — regardless of whether that vehicle burns fossil fuels or runs on electricity stored in an onboard battery.
Though it pales in comparison to the human suffering occurring in Ukraine daily, Russia's invasion has also severely crimped, and perhaps ended, production of wire harnesses in the former Soviet republic.
Ukraine was responsible for an estimated 7 percent of wire harness production feeding European assembly plants, according to AlixPartners' analysis of 2020 Comtrade data, Reuters reported. "Suppliers including Germany's Forschner, Kromberg & Schubert, Prettl, SEBN and Japan's Yazaki have built up a hefty wire harness production sector in Ukraine, which has a lower-cost, skilled work force," the Reuters report said.
As consumers and auto owners, we rarely have cause to think about the miles of wiring that run through our automobiles unless something goes wrong. And as an industry, let's face it: We dote on the nifty new gadgets and computer software that allows vehicles to stop automatically, safely assist drivers and even entertain those riding in the cabin far more than we do the convoluted bundle of conductive wires that make all of it work.
We've certainly paid more attention to microchips in the last year than wiring harnesses have collectively received in perhaps their history.
But here's the thing that every automotive product planner, every manufacturing engineer and every assembly line worker knows well: You can still build vehicles if you run low on microchips by adding them in later; but there's no sense in running an assembly plant if you don't have enough wire harnesses because there's nothing outside of the body-in-white and the wheels that you can build before you have to add a wire to it.
A modern automobile doesn't just have wires going to obvious components, such as the engine and transmission, lighting and instrumentation. That same wire harness also has to feed electricity to seating and window controls, sensor clusters and cameras, electric power-steering modules, fuel and brake pumps. In fact, there are only a few fully mechanical systems left on the automobile that aren't electrified or sensored in some way.