July 2018 Edition

The Last Word: Smart Transportation to Drive Semiconductor Content

By David Lammers

I wake up early, make coffee, and turn on the TV news. Just about every morning there is video of a traffic accident that has caused major road delays somewhere in Austin— often reporting serious injuries or death.

Dan Niles, Founding Partner, Alpha One Capital Partners

Worldwide about 1.3 million people, including drivers, passengers and pedestrians, are killed annually in auto accidents, according to Dan Niles, founding partner of investment firm Alpha One Capital Partners. At SEMI’s ISS conference early this year, Niles predicted that fully autonomous cars— widely viewed as a replacement for conventional automobiles— will begin to hit the roads by 2021, while noting that these self-driving cars “will require a tremendous increase in semiconductor content.”

In the interim, automotive manufacturers are adding a plethora of electronic safety and monitoring innovations to conventional vehicles, such as lane departure and vehicle proximity alerts. More eco-friendly battery-powered electric vehicles, or EVs, are not quite there yet for the average consumer in terms of range and cost. But Niles noted that Volkswagen plans to invest €20B in EVs by 2030. Both the UK and France plan to  prohibit petrol-driven cars by 2040, and “China is on a similar timeline,” Niles said.

The reality is that China will be pushing Western nations to keep up with what is proving to be a very complex technical challenge: autonomously driven vehicles.

At the SEMI Austin Spring Forum, I spoke with Dave Anderson, president of SEMI Americas, who said that China’s government-led economy “can drive things forward” in advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and EVs with a variety of powerful incentives. Anderson said that carmakers want to establish closer relations with semiconductor equipment suppliers as part of their efforts to reduce defects to as close to zero as possible. He noted that SEMICON West in July will feature a Smart Transportation pavilion aimed at “bringing the supply chain closer to the OEMs.” So carmakers are in a technology-driven competition to make ADAS safe, legal, and affordable.


David Anderson, President, SEMI Americas


Then there is the equally interesting bottom-up view: the advances in semiconductors, sensors, AI, and software that are making ADAS possible. Among the engineering marvels are important developments in the “sensor fusion” packages that are so critical to safe driving.


Each sensor-type has limitations. Cameras, based on hyperspectral image sensors, are improving fast, but have difficulties calculating the distance and speed of objects in the road. Laser-based lidar sensors have high resolution, but don’t work well in bad weather and are pricey.

The 5G cellular standard will be used as a sensor of sorts, partly to peer around bends in the road, communicate with other 5G-enabled cars, and receive information from vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) service providers.

Automotive imaging radar is taking advantage of the 77 GHz bandwidth reserved for automotive-use applications worldwide. But it still can’t differentiate between, say, a human and a large dog, so there’s an object-recognition challenge.

An Israeli company, Arbe Robotics, says its forthcoming 77 Ghz radar module can peer out 300 meters or farther, with resolution that rivals lidar sensor modules. The Arbe Robotics two-chip module (front end and processor) is manufactured in the fully depleted silicon-on-insulator (FD-SOI) 22FDX process from GLOBALFOUNDRIES. It is a great example of something Applied Materials CEO Gary Dickerson often talks about: how materials innovation (in this case, the very thin active silicon layer on top of the buried oxide of FD-SOI) can lead to new device-types that support new applications.

Autonomous driving brings a certain amount of anxiety. SEMI’s Anderson said self-driving cars might prove attractive in urban environments, allowing commuters to focus on email while a self-driving car takes them to their destinations. But on rural roads, Anderson said he would prefer to drive himself. And he speculated that while his young daughter probably will get a driver’s license, future generations of teenagers may not need to drive at all.

Scores of technical challenges remain, including protection from hackers, stabilization of complex software code, and simulation or testing for bad weather and other hard-to-predict road conditions. But there’s irony here too. Technology has made it possible for us to drive faster and farther—and text while driving. But it may now be the solution to making driving safer.


David Lammers is an Austin-based technology journalist.