The Next Big Thing

Convergence of technologies will soon be in the driver’s seat…literally.


One of the interesting things about boom markets in technology is that they’re almost always built on other technological developments. Typically what happens is technologies are combined into a new whole or system, which explains how the telegraph gave way to the telephone, and how radio became the basis for television.

The computer age had its own set of building blocks that were used to create the Internet, not to mention the current smartphone and tablet explosion. But where do we go next, and what will be the next killer app?

One very promising direction involves the automobile. All of the advances in energy efficiency and high performance that appear in mobile device already are required to improve gas mileage and maximum performance. There are even examples of variable performance and power—which are the auto’s answer to DVFS. But this is only part of the picture. Cars increasingly are connected to the Internet through on-board communication, and they soon will be connected to each other through a variety of sensors and Internet-based communication.

But these aren’t just simple connected devices. We are about to enter the era of supercomputers on wheels, where cars are an integral and important part of the Internet of things, of our daily communication, and perhaps even a connected office environment as driverless cars begin showing up on the road.

The timing couldn’t be better, either. Many car buyers have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for new technology—particularly better mileage—but also better infotainment, as well as an economic turnaround. While that turnaround is still a year or more off in Europe, the markets in the Americas and China have rebounded and no longer appear unstable. That accounts for the record sales being reported by carmakers in 2012 and even more upbeat forecasts for 2013.

Semiconductors will be a key part of this growth, and the automotive sector will provide a new and expanding market for everything from complex SoCs to sophisticated microcontrollers and MEMS chips. It also will provide a testing ground for new technologies that can improve performance while reducing power, and a system-level integration scheme that dwarfs anything done outside the mil/aero market.

As the iPod, the smart phone and even the PC proved, it’s not so much about the individual pieces. It’s how they’re put together and the business infrastructure behind them. And these days, it’s how long they can run at full speed without having to recharge or fill up the tank.

–Ed Sperling