At The Intersection Of Electronics And Automobiles

Self-driving cars have the potential to increase productivity and change society.

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While we’re idling at this traffic light, let’s “blue sky” a bit. Over the course of a year, the average American driver spends the equivalent of more than seven 40-hour work weeks just sitting in a car. Crazy, right?  But who measures work weeks as only 40 hours anymore?

Those 280+ hours spent driving means there’s a lot of non-productive overhead time, to borrow a term from semiconductor manufacturing. So how can IC technology help to reduce the huge amount of lost time we spend in cars? For an answer, think beyond Sirius XM radio and audio book recordings. Think self-driving cars.

Market research firm IC Insights has forecasted that automotive electronics will be the fastest growing IC market segment through 2021. A wide range of companies from automotive icon Porsche to Dyson, a company best known for designing vacuum cleaners, are working to apply all that processing power in creating all-electric and even fully autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

Readily available real-time imaging electronics (RTIE) are driving a vehicular evolution. Thanks to advances in system-on-chip (SoC) designs and smaller form factors, imaging technologies such as LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and digital-array radar are reaching mass markets including automotive electronics. The obstacle detection and avoidance capabilities that they enable are being used in current model vehicles.

Sensor technology is critical to the development of self-driving cars. One major challenge is getting vehicles to determine when it is safe to make a turn in the presence of pedestrians. While driverless cars can be made to understand road signs and the proximity of other vehicles, people entering a crosswalk can cause some autonomous vehicles to wait indefinitely until there are no people moving. As long-time semiconductor industry analyst James Hines sees it, thinking of autonomous vehicles as mobile sensors and connected devices will help the semiconductor industry to design solutions that overcome such hurdles while also enabling new digital business models.

China is one of the players that recognizes this business opportunity and is using it within a multi-tier strategy. The Chinese government is calling for a national development program for autonomous and electric vehicles, bypassing the mass production of fossil-fuel-based automobiles. With this strategic move, it hopes to accomplish three things: (1) establish a Chinese automotive industry, (2) address the country’s substantial problems with carbon-based pollution by “going electric” and (3) leverage the creation of an electric and self-driving vehicles industry to stimulate the underlying semiconductor infrastructure in China.

Autonomous vehicles will drive several segments of the semiconductor industry. In addition to image sensors, massive amounts of computing power and high-bandwidth memory are needed for fully automated driving, as noted by Kevin Tran, director of automotive technical marketing for SK hynix, at a recent SEMI-sponsored industry forum. He identified GDDR5/LPDDR5 memories as potential next-generation solutions for this application.

What may not be needed are steering wheels, since mobile computer systems will be used to operate driverless vehicles. But what other changes could self-driving cars bring? For instance, when automobiles come with built-in robot chauffeurs, will drunk driving become a thing of the past? Or will over-imbibing become more prevalent since we’ll be able to “sleep it off” on the drive home?

Will there be a steep reduction in traffic accidents? And if so, how will this affect the insurance industry and the rates that we all pay today?

Will traffic jams be relegated to the past? How might morning commutes filled with self-driving vehicles influence the number of jobs for traffic cops and mass-transit drivers?

While the growing electronics content in cars is sure to increase demand for semiconductors, how will the production of autonomous cars impact the automotive industry? Will vehicle manufacturing become so akin to smart phone assembly that industry pioneer Henry Ford would not recognize the automobile factories of tomorrow?

Or will self-driving cars and the interstate highway grid go the way of short-lived IC technology nodes and be quickly supplanted by hyperloops, already in development by the likes of Virgin Hyperloop One and SpaceX?

Hey, the light has changed. Time to move forward.



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