It was more than 130 years ago in 1885 when Gottlieb Daimler invented the first prototype for the modern gas engine, and in 1886 Karl Benz patented his three-wheel Benz Motor Car, Model No. 1. Yet even these visionaries might have been surprised by the sophisticated technology running our cars today – and they couldn’t even have imagined the vast range of semiconductor components involved.
The use of semiconductors in the auto industry is expected to expand as new applications develop. The change in percent of total vehicle cost going to electronics provides some perspective on this growth. Over the past decade, the cost contribution for electronics has increased from 18-20% to about 40-45%. By the end of 2017, automotive is expected to account for about 9% of worldwide semiconductor revenue. The segment’s need for many types of semiconductors – including processors, analog ICs, sensors, and memory – and its diverse applications make it as interesting as it is challenging for the chipmakers who supply it.
The high level of semiconductor content we have in our cars today is the result of extensive innovation and time. Over the years, many important developments have helped transform the inventions of Daimler and Benz into the modern automobile. Henry Ford’s assembly-line technique for mass production in the early 20th century made cars such as the Model T Ford more affordable. Inventions like automatic transmission, power steering, and anti-lock brakes along with the widespread adoption of seatbelts and airbags vastly improved both driving experience and safety. More recently, hybrid and all-electric engines have become more popular. Even hydrogen-fuel vehicles are beginning to be seen on streets and highways as concerns about the environment increase. Now, global positioning system (GPS) products, smartphone connectivity, and “infotainment” systems are commonly integrated in vehicles.
Role of semiconductors
These days much of the auto industry’s development continues with the inclusion of semiconductor technology in vehicle designs. Today’s cars are more sophisticated and more connected – the average new vehicle has computer systems that run on over 100 million lines of software code. Autos now incorporate a range of telematics (long-distance data transmission) and infotainment capabilities, transforming cars into mobile hotspots and feeding drivers information on everything from collision avoidance to available parking spot locations.
Different types of components are required for this increasingly complex set of functionality, and companies offering a wide range of specialties are developing products for these applications. These include multichannel receivers and transmitters for radar solutions to help prevent crashes; sensors, microcontrollers, and RF transmitters in tire pressure monitoring systems; and analog and digital signal processor (DSP)-based AM/FM receivers for car entertainment systems. For next-generation green and autonomous vehicles, microcontrollers that will use 28-nm embedded flash process technology are expected. Also in the works are system-on-chip (SoC) solutions for specific applications in vision processing and communications.
Safety/emissions and future applications
Semiconductors are also involved in meeting regulations for safety, for example, by helping enable intelligent functions such as blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control, and lane change assist. Vehicle standards that attribute safety “star” ratings encourage manufacturers to incorporate more devices for safety and security systems. In addition, government regulations on emissions require increasingly powerful semiconductors to ensure vehicle compliance.
Even more revolutionary is the autonomous car, already moving from concept to reality with a range of technologies now in place that help enable this capability. Should driverless technology be proven truly safe, emphasis on driver safety systems and components could shift to the “rider experience,” with consumers focusing more on interiors, electronics, comfort, and productivity. For example, onboard systems’ knowledge of our food preferences could suggest restaurants or allow online shopping before taking us to pick up our goods that are ready and waiting at the store. What a long way the auto industry has come since Daimler’s engine and Benz’s three-wheel car!
Kris Kendall is the content marketing and communications manager at Lam Research.