GENEVA, Switzerland -- The demise of the automobile has been greatly exaggerated thanks in large part to engineering innovations by automotive electronics companies.
The auto market has been revived through a broad range of engineering innovations from suppliers like STMicroelectronics, based here, along with rivals Freescale Semiconductor and Japan’s Renesas Electronics. Among the innovations either in testing or production are technologies to help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, improved fuel efficiency and new passenger safety features.
Meanwhile, the self-driving car is no longer a dream and the automobile is becoming, for better or worse, the ultimate mobile communications and entertainment hub.
"The most important trend within the market continues to be the greater integration of infotainment features into vehicles' central head units in the dashboard or front console,” market watcher IHS said in a recent report. Making this possible are both wired and wireless connectivity features such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and USB for use in navigation and telematics.
"The future of the automotive is bright," predicted Marco Monti, executive vice president and general manager of ST's automotive product group. "It used to be an object that was considered dangerous, but it is becoming a tool that is having less impact on the environment.” What’s more, the growing number of infotainment features in cars are fast becoming must-haves for consumers.
Electronics have vastly improved auto functionality, Monti added, giving drivers a batch of new sensors ranging from cameras to gyroscopes. The next step will be integrating cars with networks and greater vehicle autonomy. "You can have a car that is behaving independently of your judgment. It is getting to a point where you don't always need to know how the car is working. It just does,” Monti said.
Delivering vehicles crammed with new features while determining consumer preferences in the different regions is now one of the biggest challenges facing auto OEMs, subassembly manufacturers and semiconductor vendors. Regional differences can be huge. Auto OEMs currently sell different models in different regions. The features marketed in each region depend on factors like regulatory requirements and customer preferences. Often, these varying requirements affect vehicle design and the types of components manufacturers purchase from suppliers.
ST, for instance, said it works closely with Chinese auto manufacturers at the system level, making the "direct relationship between the automakers and semiconductor companies stronger in China, for example, than it is in Europe," according to Monti. That’s because Chinese manufacturers want system-level solutions and are glad to invite the suppliers to participate early in the design stage.
As the auto IC market continues to expand and ST and its rivals increase R&D spending, they are gaining more leverage in the market as barriers for entry by new semiconductor vendors grow. One reason is that the average auto OEM designs vehicles five years ahead of market introduction. While the types of electronics used in autos is constantly changing, these lead times create a major hurdle for new IC suppliers seeking new auto design wins.
Moreover, auto makers dealing with more frequent product recalls tend to stick with trusted suppliers.
That means emerging Chinese chip vendors will have a tough time unseating incumbents like ST as long as it can deliver what manufacturers want, when they want it. Hence, the focus of auto electronics competition for the foreseeable future will be among ST, Freescale and Renesas.
Higher gas prices, drive car, auto IC sales
Driving ST's auto IC strategy: Manufacturing line can't stop