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Automotive electronics, a hill to climb

Posted by Andrew Shephard on 5th November 2018

At the invitation of a former client, I attended the AESIN conference in Birmingham for the first time this year and was struck with the potential that the automotive sector still offers to UK automotive developers and design teams, and the opportunity it presents to the semiconductor industry as a whole in Europe for the next decade.

Having a personal interest in cars and bikes, I have always kept an eye on where developments are leading, but the sheer volume of necessary progress that’s cued-up in the industry today is quite staggering. It’s clearly driven by the combination of electrification ­– that’s replacing petrol and diesel engines with powertrains and battery systems – along with parallel developments in autonomy and the march towards the Advanced Driver Assistance Systems which will eventually allow vehicles to take over the driving for us.

Skills that simply don’t exist

During a tightly packed day, which started with a super early transition of the M40, I listened to expert developers, captains of industry, new technology providers and a fairly impassioned Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, Dr Mike Short. Everything I heard points to one conclusion; a massive change is happening and it will boost the industry, globally. Everything is well understood at a basic level but ironing out the details needs a vast bank of skills that simply don’t exist today. These are skills which must be taught, learned, enticed, or borrowed from other industries if the UK (and European) leadership in this turbulent and fast-moving sector is to be maintained.

Thinking particularly about the electronics content of a modern car, and particularly the use of ECUs that comprise data processing and embedded software, the developments that are needed next are so much more significant than the initial introductions were in 1967 when VW ousted the carburettor for electronic fuel injection for the first time in a volume production car. Back then the electronics value of the car jumped from approximately zero to maybe 4% when Bosch fuel injection was added to the iconic 1600 VWs. This led the industry to full engine management to meet emission and economy demands, more sophistication in drivetrains, and then there’s the safety wave with ABS, airbags and traction control, and that’s not forgetting automatic climate control and infotainment, you probably know the rest.

Wind forward to today, based on some Statista figures referenced in the UK Automotive Electronics Capability Report, by 2020 thirty five percent of the cost of a new vehicle will be ECUs / electronics, rising to half of the total cost just ten years later on 2030. Just consider those numbers, that’s 1/3 value shifting to 1/2 value of each vehicle, in a global market that’s over 80 million units today and worth close to $2 trillion.

You want it when?

Now to the main point I took away – traditionally developed new car platforms take 42 months to develop. That platform then needs to stay in production for 10 years to give the return necessary for the investment. This means, if normal patterns are followed, cars that will contribute to those numbers in 2030 – when cars will be 50% electronics – are effectively already underway!

The problem is, much of the technology and standards that will enable autonomy and advance the new powertrains that will eliminate internal combustion are simply not cooked yet. If the projections are to be met there will have to be a fairly radical re-think on how the structure of vehicle electronics changes, which is analogous I’d say to the more general semiconductor integration that happened in the consumer and mobile sectors in the 90s and 00s.

Must beat the rate of technological change

As well as really raising the appeal of the automotive sector to those STEM students about to choose what they want to study at university in a year or so’s time [17 year old daughter please note], the rest of skills that are needed will have to be drawn from other industries. The automotive developers will become less siloed, pulling skills from military and defence, from computing and cyber security sectors, from industrial controls and media technology; basically wherever they can find the talent and where approaches have already been proven. This major shift in attitude can cut the development time and will add that extra 15% of value that Statista’s numbers predict, as fast and as safely as possible.

Andrew Shephard

Andrew’s engineering background and ‘fluff-free’ attitude combined with probably the broadest knowledge of technology installed in one PR brain ensures critical insight for Wildfire’s clients. He has driven campaigns for major forces in the semiconductor industry over 18 years including NEC Electronics, Sun Microelectronics and TSMC along with game-changing start-ups like Achronix and Nujira.