Automotive electronics: “Cheap semiconductors” in cars?

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Now semiconductors are the latest innovation in the automobile. They constitute an enormous market that has become increasingly attractive to manufacturers of consumer ICs, which are inexpensive, compact and innovative. Unfortunately they don’t really meet automotive standards when it comes to quality and liability. Now a new EU project is trying to close the gap between safety, innovative speed and price.

Fifty years ago, just a handful of electronic components were responsible for performing simple functions in the automobile. But now, electronics drive automotive progress. Anyone who has attended electronica in Munich during the past few years has experienced the growing significance of automotive electronics in the exhibition halls and at the conference events. Incidentally, they next chance to do so is on November 8. That is when electronica will open its gates again for the 51st time. And electronics is likely to continue its advance in the automobile.

High-performance computers, smart sensor technology and modern telematics solutions are making the vision of a self-driving, networked automobile more of a reality. And the wonderful world of the smartphone won’t stop at the “living room on wheels”.

Equipped with innovative consumer electronics

Automotive electronics: ST car infotainement (Image: STMicroelectronics)
Infotainment ICs are increasingly common in motor vehicles. (Image: STMicroelectronics).

With so much electronics in the automobile, it is hardly surprising that carmakers and their suppliers are also turning to semiconductor components that were actually intended for consumer electronics. After all, they are unbeatably inexpensive and compact.

In addition, the rapid introduction of innovative functions in the automobile calls for semiconductor components such as infotainment ICs or intelligent sensors that are only available in consumer-electronics quality. However, the elaborate development and manufacture of these components is only cost-effective if they are produced in large quantities. In addition, the zero-defects strategy that applies to automotive electronics means higher costs as well as longer innovation cycles.

Automotive electronics for extreme requirements

Still, many experts and semiconductor manufacturers in particular view this development with concern because smaller chip structures and higher package densities ultimately result in diminished robustness. So at the end of 2014, the German Electrical and Electronics Manufacturers’ Association (ZVEI) published a position paper titled “Consumer Components in Safe Automotive Applications (pdf)” to launch a debate. Analog Devices, Epcos, Freescale, Infineon, NXP, Bosch and STMicroelectronics were all involved. They agreed that to achieve targets with regard to quality, reliability, service life and safety, modern automotive-capable solutions depend on strengths that must be defined during technology, housing and component development.

Special emphasis was placed on driver-assistance systems and safety functions. After all, if a component fails, it could endanger the health or even the lives of the passengers.

Which is why the suppliers that are organized in the ZVEI expect that collaboration among OEMs, tier-one suppliers and component manufacturers will make it easier to identify and minimize new risks in the value chain. After all, incorporating non-automotive semiconductors into motor vehicles is unavoidable, and the trend is expected to increase in the future.

At the end of last year, the ZVEI followed up with a “factsheet” (XLSX) that identified 66 possible differences between automotive-specific components and components for the consumer market. It also described the consequences for the automobile when automotive requirements are not met.

Automotive consumer electronics

As of April of this year, the European TRACE project is devoted to the same topic. Its objective is to develop new methods and processes that guarantee the safe use of semiconductor technology from the consumer electronics sector in automobiles and in the automation industry.

It is supposed to ultimately result in the publication of a directive concerning the certification and approval of components for the respective application sector as demonstrated on the basis of prototypes in the sectors for highly automated driving and autonomous infrastructure interaction.

Achieving this objective calls for cooperation along the entire automotive and industrial value chain. Naturally, the 35 TRACE project partners from five European countries include a number of familiar names from the ZVEI position paper. Besides automobile manufacturers such as BMW, Daimler, Volvo and VW and suppliers such as Bosch, Continental and Siemens, they also include the semiconductor manufacturers ams, Bosch, NXP and STMicroelectronics. The project consortium’s objective is nothing less than a new industry standard that will strengthen the leading international role of European industry for future mobility and productivity.


logo electronica eIf you would like additional information on the latest developments on automotive electronics, we recommend attending the electronica Automotive Conference. Two keynotes in particular, i.e. “Trends in Interior Electronics: Automotive meets CE” and “Semiconductors as a Key Enabler for the Transition of the Automotive Industry,” are worth the visit.

Program electronica Automotive Conference 2016 (pdf)