Five or more years ago if you talked to major semiconductor companies in North America about their involvement in the automotive market, you would get a cold response. Many of these suppliers were observing the market growth but without real commitment. While their European and Japanese counterparts were more involved with dedicated groups within the organization, the North American suppliers, except for a few exceptions like Motorola, were unexcited. But, the picture today is much different.
Because there is pressure to implement emerging advanced automotive safety, engine, infotainment, chassis control, and wireless technologies, analysts predict this decade will witness an unprecedented growth in automobile electronics content. This growth in automotive electronics is spurring demand for a new generation of semiconductor devices. Analysts at ABI Research believe that differing requirements around the world are driving growth for automotive-specific semiconductors. In Europe and Asia, for example, smaller engines are the norm and there is a defined need to match their performance with larger displacement engines. To maximize the performance of these smaller engines, advanced engine management technologies including displacement on demand (DoD), variable valve timing (VVT), and direct fuel injection are being aggressively rolled out in these regions.
The same is happening in the United States, although predominantly due to rising fuel costs and emission standards. New government legislation mandates that automakers must implement advanced airbag safety systems and tire pressure-monitoring systems into future car lines. Consequently, automotive processors are proliferating. The evolution of microcontroller and sensor technology is allowing OEMs to create systems that can provide levels of vehicle control and safety unheard of 10 years ago. A study from ABI Research, “Automotive Electronics Systems: Market Requirements for Microcontrollers, Accelerometers, Hall-effect and Pressure Sensors,” shows that ever-tightening emissions standards and taxes on vehicles with poor fuel economy are indirectly resulting in a surge from engine management systems based on 16-bit processors, to designs based on 32-bit architectures. ABI Research analyst Robert LaGuerra said, “We believe engine management systems will go to a 32-bit processor architecture as a result of stringent emissions standards and higher taxes on vehicles with poor fuel efficiency.” For the engine to burn as efficiently as possible additional sensors and processing power must be added to obtain more accurate control of fuel supply, spark and emissions. That demands the use of 32-bit systems. Emerging countries will still be able to use 16-bit, but by the end of the study's forecast period in 2010, nearly all engines in the United States will be using 32-bit microcontrollers. Additionally, emergence of onboard cameras, as well as occupant detection as part of next-generation airbag systems will be driving the growth of semiconductor devices and associated components to new heights as well.
Likewise, general purpose and optimized DSP processors are finding use in digital radio broadcasts, high-quality audio, mobile TV reception, and telematic applications in the automobile arena. Transition from conventional combustion engines to hybrid electric vehicles is creating demand for a new generation of power semiconductor devices. Migration to solid-state lamps is fueling growth in power ICs.
Proliferation of these high-performance semiconductor devices, power management solutions and electronic components has attracted companies like Fairchild Semiconductor, Maxim Integrated Products, Linear Technology Corp., National Semiconductor Corp., Micrel Semiconductor and Texas Instruments who have created automotive groups to tap this growing pie. Even FPGA makers like Xilinx see a need for FPGAs in tomorrow's automotives and are going after this market. Just as PCs crafted a new market for semiconductor devices in the 1980s, and mobile handsets in the 1990s, automobiles offer new opportunities this decade.