The Semiconductor Industry’s Big Opportunity

Advances made for automotive electronics will make their way into many other sectors.

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Safety critical device development, particularly in the automotive electronics space, has the attention of the entire semiconductor industry. Not surprising, since next-generation cars represent the biggest opportunity yet since mobile devices. However, what’s less obvious are the various phases of this megatrend that represent real convergence from many specializations.

Traditional automotive electronics consisted of contact points, spark plugs and relays, replaced with electronic ignitions and microcontroller-based systems, primitive in relation to other sectors. Phase 2 over the last 10 years or so has been the rise of complex systems allowing for the automation of emergency stops, parking, cruise control and so on. This is nothing compared to Phase 3 and the advent of the true driverless vehicle.

The idea of a car or truck that can drive itself seems like something straight out of science fiction. To enable this requires a significant degree of intelligence not apparent in other industries coupled with an ability to rapidly access and process significant amounts of data. The IoT revolution is finding a significant application in automotive as even the most insignificant item of sensor information can be shared locally in the car, then globally. Machine learning is going to be essential as the car takes on more of the analysis of the road, previously the responsibility of the driver.

We have seen convergence before of techniques from some sectors having an impact on others, but the automotive opportunity is a whole new dimension. Every significant semiconductor and electronic system company is getting in on the act, and the advances we will see will make their way into many other sectors.

Why has this started to happen now? Well, the various Safety Critical or High Reliability industry sectors such as automotive, aeronautical, medical and defense traditionally have been behind other sectors because it was essential that they exercise caution to ensure their devices could cause no harm. This is still true of the other sectors, but the automotive business has changed due to the competitive nature of the market. Car manufacturers realize that electronic systems are the key differentiator and add substantial value, and have jumped on the opportunity.

To ensure safety while maintaining the performance and power characteristics as well as tight design schedules of these devices, the ISO 26262 standard was envisaged. ISO 26262 allows for safe devices that fit automotive industry characteristics and, as such, can be seen as an enabler for this technology revolution.

ISO 26262 demands new development and, specifically, verification techniques and processes. This in turn has driven design automation vendors to produce specialized functionality that will ultimately benefit the entire industry. For example, one company offers an end-to-end tool suite to analyze, augment and verify functional safety in SoC, ASIC and IP designs, ensuring they meet functional safety requirements. OneSpin offers a comprehensive safety critical analysis and diagnostic coverage solution for mission-critical applications. Others are sure to follow.