TOKYO — The auto industry disruptions triggered by Japan's earthquake and tsunami are about to get worse.
In the weeks ahead, car buyers will have difficulty finding the model they want in certain colors, thousands of autoworkers will likely be told to stay home, and companies such as Toyota, Honda and others will lose billions of dollars in revenue.
More than two weeks since the natural disaster, inventories of crucial car supplies — from computer chips to paint pigments — are dwindling fast as Japanese factories that make them struggle to restart. Because parts and supplies are shipped by slow-moving boats, the real dropoff has yet to be felt by factories in the United States, Europe and Asia. That will come by mid April.
"This is the biggest impact ever in the history of the automobile industry," said Koji Endo, managing director at Advanced Research Japan in Tokyo.
Much of Japan's auto industry — the second-largest supplier of cars in the world — remains idle. Few plants were seriously damaged by the quake, but with supplies of water and electricity fleeting, no one can say when factories will crank up. Some auto analysts say it could be as late as this summer.
Hitachi Automotive Systems, which makes parts such as airflow sensors and drive control systems, is waiting for its suppliers to restart while dealing with its own problems. Its plants are without water and gas, and have rolling electricity blackouts. A spokesman said he doesn't know when its plants will reopen.
The uncertainly has suppliers, automakers and dealers scrambling. And it exposes the vulnerability of the world's most complex supply chain, where 3,000 parts go into single car or truck. Each one of those parts is made up of hundreds of other pieces supplied by multiple companies. All it takes is one part to go missing or arrive late, and a vehicle can't be built.
When General Motors briefly shut a pickup plant in Shreveport, La., due to a lack of parts, it caused the partial closing of a New York factory that supplies engines for those trucks. Sweden's Volvo has warned that its production could be disrupted because it is down to a week's worth of some parts.
Car buyers will soon see higher prices and fewer choices. Some car colors will be harder to get because a paint pigment factory in Japan was damaged and shut production. As a result, Ford is telling dealers to stop ordering "tuxedo black" models of its F-150 pickup and Expedition and Navigator SUVs. It's also shifting away from some reds. The moves are precautionary, Ford said. Chrysler told dealers it was temporarily restricting orders of vehicles in 10 colors.
Japanese carmakers, who have shut most of their domestic plants, are warning that some of their overseas factories will stop running, too, in an effort to conserve supplies. Toyota and Honda expect shutdowns at North American plants. Honda says production could be interrupted after Friday. Even though most of its parts are sourced in the region, a few critical ones come from Japan.
Goldman Sachs estimates the shutdowns are costing the Japan automakers $200 million a day, which adds up to $2.8 billion for just the past two weeks. Each week of continued shutdowns costs $1.4 billion. By comparison, Toyota made $2.3 billion in all of 2010, and its sudden-acceleration recalls cost $2 billion. The cost of damage from Japan's natural disaster could dwarf that recall, which was considered Toyota's biggest crisis ever.
An example of Japan's importance in auto parts: Its suppliers make many of the electronic components that control music systems and the sensors that monitor fuel levels and air bags.