Semiconductors: your car is a computer on wheels

Semiconductors: your car is a computer on wheels

A modern car is one of the most complex software gadgets in the world. No wonder a thumbnail-sized chip can make it work or stop it.

Commenting on the February 2022 sales data released on Friday, Rajesh Menon, Managing Director of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), said: “Sales in February 2022 were down from February 2021 – for passenger vehicles , two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Supply-side challenges like the shortage of semiconductors… impacted sales.

Shortage of semiconductors (chips)

By now, everyone knows how the chip shortage started:

—During the first lockdown in 2020 and the shift to working from home and studying from home, people bought laptops and mobile devices in unprecedented numbers;

—Gaming device sales skyrocketed (city kids were at home, not on playgrounds);

—Car sales picked up after the 2020 lockdown and pent-up demand led to a backlog of orders.

Cars, mobile devices, laptops, and game consoles…all need chips to function, and the chip industry couldn’t meet that demand.

Then some black swan events impacted chip production – a winter storm shut down chip factories in Texas in early 2021, a fire at Renesas Electronics’ chip factory in Japan in mid- 2021 and an upsurge in Covid-19 cases in Malaysia at the end of 2021.

Automotive analysts FE spoke to said the chip shortage may continue for the rest of CY22, although it may start to ease a bit. While India has sanctioned Rs 76,000 crore under the PLI (Production Linked Incentive) scheme to encourage chip manufacturing, it will take time to bear fruit.

But where are the chips in cars?

Have you ever wondered how at the touch of a button the car window opens and closes, how if another vehicle approaches, your car sensors start beeping, how a slight pressure on the accelerator pedal can improve engine power in a fraction of a second. a second?

There’s something running deep inside a car: software codes that make these physical acts possible. This software runs on a microprocessor.

Then there is the microcontroller, which includes the microprocessor and some peripherals. This microcontroller controls the automatic functions necessary to run a car, from sending the correct amount of fuel to the engine, to controlling the brakes, and from controlling the human-machine interface (HMI) display to operation. automatic seats, windows, mirrors, etc.

“An entry-level car might have 15 to 20 such microcontrollers, and a connected car might have more than 100 such microcontrollers,” Anup Sable, CTO, KPIT Technologies, told FE. Essentially, software codes are written to operate a particular function of a car, and the microcontroller causes that code to interact with the physical control.

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The use of such devices in vehicles is increasing. CV Raman, Chief Technology Officer, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, said that contemporary petrol/diesel cars use semiconductors in almost all functional areas, such as powertrain, body control, steering system , braking systems, airbag system, infotainment and vehicle telematics system, and soon.

This use, Raman added, will only increase with the massive arrival of electric cars. “Electric cars, in addition to the above, use various controllers to manage the electric powertrain. The key components of the electric powertrain, including battery, motor, inverter, and charging system, require electronic components and additional semiconductors.In addition, some auxiliary systems, such as compressor, vacuum pump and regenerative braking systems, need to be converted from mechanical type to electric type to meet the requirements of electric cars, resulting in additional use of semiconductors,” he said.

In a typical contemporary car, the share of electronic components in value can range from 10 to 15 percent, “but in electric cars it can be around 1.5 times that of conventional gasoline/diesel cars,” Raman said.

The use of chips is also increasing due to the growing popularity of connected cars in India. These cars have a built-in eSIM and offer features such as voice navigation, voice-assisted phone calls, in-car air quality monitoring, remote engine start and are also capable of updates live software. Many companies from Kia to Hyundai to MG to Tata and many more are now selling connected cars in India.

It’s not just advanced cars, even seemingly “simpler” vehicles like motorcycles or entry-level tractors need semiconductors. “Almost every vehicle with some sort of automatic feature needs these devices,” Sable said.

So the next time you watch your car respond to your voice, or the AC power keep the cabin warm, or the anti-lock braking system help avoid an accident, remember that software running on a tiny Thumbnail-sized chip helps the car do this.