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Infotainment, green trends fuel auto IC biz

Posted: 01 Aug 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:auto IC? automotive infotainment? wireless connectivity? auto electronics?

The automotive industry has been revived through a broad range of engineering innovations from suppliers like STMicroelectronics, Freescale Semiconductor and Renesas Electronics. Technologies that help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, improved fuel efficiency and new passenger safety features are among such green initiatives.

"The future of the automotive is bright," predicted Marco Monti, executive vice president and general manager of ST's automotive product group. "It used to be an object that was considered dangerous, but it is becoming a tool that is having less impact on the environment."

Monti added that auto electronics have vastly improved functionality, giving drivers a batch of new sensors ranging from cameras to gyroscopes. The next step will be integrating cars with networks and greater vehicle autonomy. "You can have a car that is behaving independently of your judgment. It is getting to a point where you don't always need to know how the car is working. It just does," Monti said.

Furthermore, the evolving infotainment features in cars are fast becoming must-haves for consumers. "The most important trend within the market continues to be the greater integration of infotainment features into vehicles' central head units in the dashboard or front console," market watcher IHS said in a recent report. Wired and wireless connectivity features such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and USB for use in navigation and telematics are making this possible.

Delivering vehicles crammed with new features while determining consumer preferences in the different regions is now one of the biggest challenges facing auto OEMs, subassembly manufacturers and semiconductor vendors. Auto OEMs currently sell different models in different regions. The features marketed in each region depend on factors like regulatory requirements and customer preferences. Often, these varying requirements affect vehicle design and the types of components manufacturers purchase from suppliers.

ST, for instance, said it works closely with Chinese auto manufacturers at the system level, making the "direct relationship between the automakers and semiconductor companies stronger in China, for example, than it is in Europe," according to Monti. That's because Chinese manufacturers want system-level solutions and are glad to invite the suppliers to participate early in the design stage.

As the auto IC market continues to expand and ST and its rivals increase R&D spending, they are gaining more leverage in the market as barriers for entry by new semiconductor vendors grow. One reason is that the average auto OEM designs vehicles five years ahead of market introduction. While the types of electronics used in autos is constantly changing, these lead times create a major hurdle for new IC suppliers seeking new auto design wins.

Moreover, auto makers dealing with more frequent product recalls tend to stick with trusted suppliers. This means emerging Chinese chip vendors will have a tough time unseating incumbents like ST as long as it can deliver what manufacturers want, when they want it. Hence, the focus of auto electronics competition for the foreseeable future will be among ST, Freescale and Renesas.

- Bolaji Ojo
??EE Times U.S.

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