About 80 percent of demand for palladium and rhodium now comes from the automotive sector. At the same time, the effects of the pandemic on mining in South Africa, a major producer of rhodium, has kept supply limited. “This is why you’ve seen this very dramatic rise” in demand and prices, she said.

For automakers, the metals boom has jacked up the cost of producing gasoline vehicles. Max Layton, a London-based commodity analyst at Citi, estimates that soaring metal prices added $18 billion to the global auto industry’s production costs in 2019, gobbling up 15 percent of their total cash flow, and that those costs surged further in 2020.

At current prices, he said, the industry as a whole was set to spend more than $40 billion this year just on metals for catalytic converters. The escalating costs, Mr. Layton said, were “putting pressure on automakers to shift to battery electric vehicles as quickly as possible.”

Some owners are going to extremes to protect their vehicles.

After being hit with three converter thefts in quick succession last year, Jerry Turriff, proprietor of Jerry’s Certified Service and Towing in Milwaukee, has resorted to deflating the tires of some of his customers’ most at-risk vehicles to deter thieves from crawling underneath.

“It’s unbelievable,” Mr. Turriff said. “Now if I have a vehicle I think’s going to be targeted, I take the air out the tires, so they can’t slither underneath.”

He’s spotted the thieves on his security-camera footage — usually alone, entering his property in the dead of night, with “a big duffel bag carrying all his junk,” he said. (Stealing the converters can be treacherous for the thieves, too. Last year, a Kansas City man died after the Prius he was stealing the converter from crushed him to death.)



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