Automotive IC Industry Trends

Why automotive semiconductors shouldn’t be treated like consumer devices.

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A trend that will continue in 2018 is the rise of the smart, autonomous car. As consumers and regulators demand more capability from automobiles, semiconductors have become the most critical part of these innovative solutions. But these chips, designed to bring safety and economy to the car’s operation, also bring complexity and higher requirements for reliability, requirements that have not been seen in other consumer segments like mobile devices and personal computing.1 Many of the semiconductors that are now part of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) are critical to the function and safety of the vehicle, where failures cannot be tolerated.

The rapid push into autonomous driving capability only further accentuates the need for all of the chips to work perfectly together without incident to protect the safety of both the car’s occupants and others in the surrounding environment. This is the impetus for car manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers insisting that Zero Defect programs be put in place across all automotive semiconductor suppliers. These programs are having a profound impact on the importance of process control for automotive semiconductors. Both IDMs and fabless/foundry manufacturing models are recognizing the need to make fundamental changes to their historical approach in order to respond to these trends and be successful in the competitive automotive market.

The first trend is the rapid growth of semiconductor content within vehicles. Up from a few hundred large design rule controllers and other components a decade ago, a modern vehicle may now contain more than 3,500 semiconductors that represent a continuously rising percentage of the overall costs. As car manufacturers are tasked with automating more of the functions of driving, all device segments are seeing growth, and cars are now likely to contain multiple complex SoCs, dozens of image sensors and a significant increase in flash and DRAM chips. According to Consumer Reports 2016, car electronics are currently the number one failure item in cars under three years old, and car manufacturers are committed to reducing these failures in order to show their commitment to quality, which is one of the top factors in consumer brand loyalty.

The second trend is the move to advanced design rules. The bulk of automotive devices have historically been manufactured at older 200mm fabs with design rules of 65nm or above, or to a lesser degree, in mature 300mm foundries. However, the move to autonomous cars requires additional computational power that cannot be served by these older fabs and devices. The need for advanced technology, as well as more manufacturing capacity, will speed the migration of automotive capacity to advanced logic 300mm foundries. Anticipating this trend, foundries are already gearing up to serve 14nm and 10nm SoCs in the automotive space, with even smaller automotive designs already in the works. These processes suffer from baseline yield issues and excursions that will cause unsatisfactory reliability when manufactured using methods that were designed for consumer mobile devices. This process immaturity creates a need to implement new process control strategies in order to prevent possible device reliability failures. The competitive environment and strong market pull creates additional pressure on fabs to ramp to extremely mature yields even faster than before.

The final trend is that reliability expectations for automotive market devices are orders of magnitude higher than for consumer-grade devices. Consumer devices allow up to 10% failure rates within the first two years, despite a relatively tame operating environment. This is the standard that many non-automotive fabs are accustomed to serving. In contrast, automotive quality requirements demand parts per billion (ppb) failure rates, giving rise to the Zero Defect concept of manufacturing. Zero Defect requires a multi-disciplinary approach to quality, and process control is a predominant factor in its success. The types of defects that cause reliability issues are the same type that cause yield issues.2 Therefore, total defectivity can serve as an effective proxy for reliability. Reaching ppb automotive quality means pushing further up the yield curve than the industry has become accustomed to for throw-away consumer devices.

2018 will be an exciting year within the automotive and semiconductor industry as innovation continues and automotive semiconductor devices push into more advanced design rules. However, industry leaders’ success will depend upon a more stringent approach to driving down defectivity, increasing product yield and eliminating future reliability failures before they reach the automobile.

  1. Price, Sutherland and Rathert, “Process Watch: The (Automotive) Problem with Semiconductors,” Solid State Technology, January 2018.
  2. Price and Sutherland, “Process Watch: The Most Expensive Defect, Part 2,” Solid State Technology, July 2015.


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