The importance of semiconductors in increasingly software-based cars

The importance of semiconductors in increasingly software-based cars

Semiconductors are already crucial in today's cars, but they will become increasingly important in the mobility of the near future, whether for autonomous driving or immersive infotainment.

Semiconductors have been in the news in recent years because of their limited availability in supply chains. A problem that has affected not only automotive, but also many other industries.

But looking beyond supply issues, why are chips so important, especially for cars? First of all, electrification and digitization are making software inside vehicles increasingly relevant; all of this software runs on different ECUs scattered through the vehicle -and each of these is equipped with at least one chip.

What is a chip

To process calculations, computers rely on integrated circuits, which are scaled-down versions of electronic circuits. These route all information and tasks through the central processing unit (CPU), memory and other building blocks. Integrated circuits are made of silicon, an element that can act both as a conductor or insulator for electric current, hence the name semiconductor. This makes it the most valuable part of the computer, since semiconductors can act as transistors, turning the current on and off just like an electrical switch.

"Integrated circuit" (IC), "SoC" (System on a Chip) and "microchip" are synonymous and describe a mostly silicon-based processing unit that runs all our electronic devices today. Microchips are manufactured in groups of hundreds on so-called wafers, silicon disks that are very similar to CDs but have the size of about an LP. Each of these microchips can contain billions of single transistors.


A chip for everything

Cars rely on chips to power their functions, just like any other electronic device, and a single car can have as many as a thousand of these essential chips, distributed in all areas of the vehicle. From the sensor that detects an accident and activates the airbag, to the ESC (Electronic Stability Control) sensors that reduce the risk of skidding, via electric mirrors, central locking or the electric trunk - all of these systems are managed electronically thanks to semiconductors.

The invention of chips dates back to the mid-20th century, when Jack Kilby introduced the first integrated circuit that revolutionized the electronics industry and earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics. More than half a century later, high-end chips can be found in common consumer devices such as smartphones, and we are all used to the fact that their performance is always increasing.

Chips for cars

Semiconductors for the automotive field, however, have special characteristics: the first is their extraordinary durability. The microchips found in cars are different from those in consumer electronics devices, both in terms of quality and operational requirements. Since they are used in safety-critical situations, they are subject to much stricter specifications. They must also function for at least 15 years and have a failure rate tending to zero, however much lower than that of chips found in smartphones and laptops.

One must also consider that semiconductors are very fragile and sensitive components, and for automotive applications they must be able to cope with extreme environmental conditions, such as those caused by humidity and vibration. This is a must, as cars are not only built to last on smooth highways, but also on rough roads and even other terrain.

Extreme conditions

Microchips for portable devices do not need this level of robustness, while those in cars must work perfectly well in both very low and very high temperatures, in some cases between -40 °C and +150 °C. In Death Valley, for example, it often happens that extreme heat causes a semiconductor in the smartphone to overheat and automatically shut down. This cannot happen in a car, which instead must handle the heat in order to ensure that driving functions perform safely and reliably.

This is why automotive semiconductors go through a rigorous manufacturing and testing process; the drawback is that the most cutting-edge chips are not unfit for these kinds of conditions.

Cutting-edge chips

This is why high-performance chips are rarely used in automotive; but CARIAD's teams dedicated to semiconductor and hardware development are working hard, with partners such as STMicroelectronics and Qualcomm; the goal is to ensure that even the most cutting-edge integrated circuits have the robustness needed for automotive applications, so that they can be used in production vehicles.

The potential is great, because it will allow for more streamlined electronics architectures within the cars, for which a single high-performance computer will be enough. In addition, more advanced semiconductors will underpin autonomous driving functions and an immersive digital experience onboard. In other words, the more powerful the chips, the more ambitious the software can be.

Source: CARIAD

VGI | Responsible OU: VP | Creation date: article date | Class 9.1

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