Automotive Industry Wild West: Silicon Slingers and Electric Saloons

Alastair Hayfield, Research Director, Automotive and Transport, IMS Research



It is rare to get a glimpse into the past, but researching the electric vehicle industry at the moment gives a fascinating insight into the twilight years of the 19th century when Diesel, Benz, and others were leaving their indelible mark on a coming century of automotive transport. Electric vehicles are nothing new; but like those early years, now is a wild' time of innovation, exploration and just a little uncertainty. There are different opinions on implementation - should we go full battery or hybrid? What type of hybrid? There are different views on charging - AC? DC? Fast or slow? And everybody knows that their design will be the next Model T. So what can the past tell us about the future? Opportunity breeds innovation and vice-versa. There is clear and growing demand for electric vehicles regardless of type (a forecast 15% of light vehicles produced in 2021 will be electric', versus 1.5% in 2010 according to IMS Research), prompting vehicle OEMs, tier1s, and other suppliers in the supply chain to join the electric bandwagon. Compared with regular' internal combustion engine vehicles, hybrid and electric vehicles require far higher semiconductor content, most notably for the battery management system and the inverter used to drive the main electric motor(s). IMS Research estimates that the semiconductor content per electric vehicle drivetrain will be over $600 in 2021. By 2021, IMS Research forecasts that the semiconductor opportunity in electric vehicle drivetrains will approach US$10bn. Much of this growth is being fuelled by power discretes, the core components at the heart of the electric vehicle inverter and AC/DC power supply unit. In fact, total sales of power discretes and modules is forecast to top US$8bn in 2021. The battery management system is another area where semiconductor vendors are eyeing' their prospects. Li-ion battery technology looks set to be the de facto standard' for storing power on board electric vehicles. Less stable than NiMH, Li-ion batteries require significantly more battery management (temperature monitoring, cell balancing, etc.) which increases the semiconductor content. IMS Research estimates that the semiconductor content of a LI-ion battery is currently five times that of an equivalent NiMH battery, with the majority of the difference coming from the number of ASSPs needed for cell pack voltage monitoring. Automotive OEMs have considerable intellectual property tied up in the design of their internal combustion engines. The same is true for hybrid and electric vehicles on the market at the moment, with the theory being that electric motor control is one way of keeping expertise in-house. But is this really the ideal way of getting the most out of an electric vehicle? Much of the expertise needed to control high speed electric motors can be found in the industrial automation or motor industry. Players in these markets are setting their sights on the electric vehicle market, particularly with off-the-shelf' inverter modules. Not only do these modules' play to their strengths, but they give vehicle OEMs the opportunity to reduce R&D costs by outsourcing motor control design. The automotive OEMs have a big decision to make: do they go it alone on motor control design to retain the "engine IP", or do they work with existing experts to take advantage of their experience?