MEMS and sensors in autonomous and electric vehicles: Key takeaways from IHS Markit at MSEC

By Paul Semenza

Automobiles have become an even more important segment for MEMS and sensors as carmakers integrate more chips for propulsion, navigation, and control into their designs. However, these advanced functions and their crisp rate of adoption have fragmented the sourcing of automotive chips. IHS Markit’s Jérémie Bouchaud provided a closer look at and outlook for this key market at the MEMS and Sensors Executive Congress in late October in Napa. Following are key takeaways from his presentation.

Autonomous and Electric/Hybrid Vehicles to Drive MEMS Market Growth

The automotive market, approaching 100 million vehicles produced annually, is approaching $6 billion, dominated by MEMS and silicon magnetic sensors for chassis and safety, and powertrain applications. Going forward, the market growth will be in autonomous vehicles and electric/hybrid vehicles. Because the penetration of electric and hybrid vehicles is much higher than that of autonomous vehicles, it has a larger available market, particularly for sensors. Each of these markets has its own dynamics.

For example, the electric and hybrid market has historically relied on a significant number of traditional, or non-semiconductor sensors, but new sensor technologies are vying to address multiple sensing needs. The most important limitation on demand of autonomous vehicles is the overall market penetration: IHS Markit expects autonomous vehicle production to reach 10 million at most by 2030.

Production of Electric and Hybrid Automobiles Now Growing at Fast Clip

Production of electric and hybrid vehicles is in a rapid growth phase, and IHS Markit expects penetration of such vehicles to reach 50% of the automotive market by 2030, up from 3% in 2016. The core functions of charging and power inversion require, among other capabilities, current, temperature and position sensing. Historically, many of these functions have been handled by non-semiconductor devices, for example negative temperature coefficient (NTC) thermistors for temperature sensing, devices that appear to be strongly positioned. In other areas, semiconductor sensors are competing with traditional devices.

For example, silicon magnetoresistive devices are going head-to-head with inductive devices for position and Hall effect sensing. Sensing requirements are also likely to evolve over time, particularly as battery systems become more reliable and robust. While some automakers are looking to sensors to monitor pressure or gas leaks from batteries, battery makers are more focused on maturing the systems and reducing the need for monitoring.

Autonomous Vehicles Drive New Source of Demand for MEMS and Sensors

The movement towards automated driving has created a new source of demand for MEMS and sensors, with advanced driver assistance systems driving faster growth than the historical powertrain applications. Currently available vehicles are at Level 2 (partial automation), with multiple cameras and radars. Level 3 vehicles (conditional automation) are likely to enter the market next year, adding driver monitoring cameras, LIDAR systems and, potentially, microbolometers or other night-vision systems. Level 4 and 5 (high and full automation, respectively) will add vehicle-to-vehicle communications and other systems, but are not likely to be widely available for several years.

The autonomous vehicle market, while smaller overall compared to electric/hybrid vehicles, provides a more attractive opportunity for MEMS devices, particularly in LIDAR systems. LIDAR and other sensing/surveying systems are at the heart of autonomous vehicles, and MEMS devices are in demand for the critical beam-steering function. However, demand for image and other sensors will accelerate as the higher levels of autonomy are rolled out.

Automotive Drives Extremely Diverse Set of Applications for MEMS and Sensor Makers

The automotive market presents an extremely diverse set of applications for MEMS and sensor makers. Some companies have developed broad product portfolios and compete in multiple applications. For example, TDK offers NTC thermistors as well as MEMS and silicon-based sensors. Semiconductor companies such as Infineon are competing in MEMS and with silicon-based sensors such as magnetoresitive and Hall effect.

The growth in demand for image and radar sensors used in ADAS, as well as magnetoresistive and Hall sensors in EVs, means that the center of gravity in automotive markets is likely to shift from MEMS over the next several years – a fundamental change, Bouchaud cautioned, that will put automotive sensor suppliers focusing solely on MEMS at risk.

Paul Semenza is a consultant in SEMI Industry Research and Statistics. 


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