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Gasoline Engine or Battery Power: What Semiconductors Will Be Needed?

Gasoline or electric?  Hybrid or plug-in.  Lithium ion or fuel cell?  What will we be driving?  It depends on the supply of oil, the price of gasoline, global warming, battery technology and more; but, whatever the outcome, there’s opportunity for semiconductors. 

Automobile sales are beginning a recovery from a disastrous slump.  Sales will increase more than 3% annually through 2013.  That may not seem very high, but it is a terrific number in the automobile industry, especially after the last year.  It will lead to much higher semiconductor growth opportunities.  For example, the 2008 - 2013 CAGR for hybrid electric vehicle control semiconductor revenue will be 52.8%. 

Semiconductor growth opportunities will occur, in part, because the kinds of automobiles being manufactured are going to change dramatically.  Cars will be smaller, more fuel efficient, and have alternate power plants.  The facts supporting this have become politicized and are hotly disputed; but here are the basics. 

Oil supplies are being depleted.  The price of gasoline will increase to $10.00 per gallon or more in the US within ten years.  Global warming is real; and people are causing it, not some variation in a natural cycle.  Automotive emissions are a major contributing factor. 

Is the SoC Design Environment About to Change?

On 7/27/09 at the Design Automation Conference (DAC) in San Francisco, ARM, Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing, IBM, Samsung Electronics and Synopsys announced an agreement to establish a comprehensive technology enablement solution for SoC designs targeted at the mobile internet space specifically for the 32nm and 28nm process geometries.

While collaborations and partnerships between different semiconductor companies and other members of the ASIC design ecosystem are nothing new in the industry, this announcement has the look of something different for the ASIC market.

Essentially the participants have aligned their technology roadmaps, technology development, products and design tools to enable an all-encompassing environment for complex SoC designs. In fact, Synopsys showed a diagram of a single design suite that allows a designer the possibility to craft a complex SoC using a fully integrated suit of tools. It also allows for the incorporation and use of different IP blocks, supplied by both ARM and Synopsys, that are already pre-verified and characterized. This is definitely a step forward for the industry.

One of the very important aspects of this collaboration is the availability of a process technology that employs high-k metal-gate technology to reduce gate leakage while at the same time providing increased scalability and reducing overall complexity.

Some questions remain however.

GM Should (Still) Kill the Corvette

In July Semico published a blog, "GM should kill the Corvette.  That blog generated a heavy reader response, much of it defending the Corvette and its pushrod technology.  Having read the responses, I still think the Corvette uses highly-developed but archaic technology; but I also believe that the reasons why GM should kill the Corvette have to do with marketing, not technology.

One of the things contributing to GM’s troubles is that its divisions, which had been separate car companies, lost their brand identity.  The GM car you owned, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick or Cadillac, once made a statement about you that everyone from eight to eighty, male or female, understood.  You wore that identity like a suit of clothes.  That brand identity was destroyed.  

Chevrolet’s mainstream cars became nearly as big and heavy as Cadillacs:  same size engines, same feature sets.   Smaller Chevrolets were badge engineered to sell as Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Buicks or Cadillacs,  cheapening those brands.  Executives decided that it would be more economical to make one V-8 for several different divisions.  A Pontiac might actually have a Chevrolet engine; but, in the minds of the decision makers, the Chevrolet engine was just as good as a Pontiac engine would have been.  Who would care? 

GM Should Kill the Corvette

The Corvette is an American icon, the only American car capable of competing with exotic, imported sports carts; but GM should kill it.  The screams of legions of irate Corvette lovers can be heard in the background; but GM should ignore that and kill the Corvette.  One reason is that it uses antiquated technology, developed to perfection but still antiquated.  An example is its pushrod engine, 

With one exception, no other high-performance engine for at least fifty years has been a pushrod engine.  NASCAR, Trans Am or other rules-limited racing series engines don’t count.  The one exception is the Mercedes V-8 that gave Roger Penske his proverbial unfair advantage at the Indianapolis 500. 

In the nineties, in an effort to encourage the use of stock block engines to reduce costs in the Indy 500, USAC gave pushrod engines 48 cubic inches of increased displacement and 10 inches of increased turbocharger boost, acknowledging that DOHC engines had an inherent horsepower advantage. 

Ilmore Engineering, with backing from Mercedes-Benz, saw an opportunity that USAC didn’t anticipate, a purpose-built pushrod-engine that would have a huge advantage.  Al Unser Jr. won the 1994 Indianapolis 500 for Penske Racing with the engine, said to have 200 horsepower more than the DOHC racing engines. 

Finally, Phase Change?

The race to mass produce the next innovation in nonvolatile semiconductor memory appears to have a new contender.   Phase change memory (PCM) has been touted by industry leaders for years.  As far back as December of 2006 Wilhelm Beignvogl, SVP, technical innovation, Qimonda AG, stated, “phase change memories have the clear potential to play an important role in future memory systems”.  This statement came as researchers from IBM, Macronix, and Qimonda were prototyping the PCM memory device nearly four years ago.

Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. and Numonyx BV recently announced they are jointly developing market specifications for PCM.  Could this be the key, finally, for wide scale commercial acceptance of PCM?  Most in the industry agree that developing package specifications and ensuring pin for pin compatibility will help speed up the adoption of PCM.  The two companies working together may also encourage future adoption as OEM’s are weary of contracting with only one manufacturer of new, unproven, technology.

Driving a Slow Sebring in the Bay Area

Whoever is making product decisions about Chrysler models in the new Fiat/Chrysler company has a problem they need to fix.

On a recent trip to the Bay Area I drove a rental car, a Chrysler Sebring LX Convertible with a 2.4 liter DOHC four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission.  It was underpowered.  It understeered badly on freeway ramps.  The engine and transmission were extremely rough and noisy above 3,000 rpm, which was especially noticeable when accelerating from 40mph to 65mph on the freeway to merge with traffic. 

As I drove around, pondering this, a thought struck me, “Maybe I’m not the driver this car was made for.  Maybe it was made for a driver who doesn’t want acceleration or handling.”   I decided to see what would happen if I drove the car is if I were that kind of driver. 

At the next stop light, I feathered the accelerator pedal, pushing down only about a quarter of an inch.  The car accelerated slowly to 2,500 rpm and then upshifted.  Voila! No noise!  A Mercedes behind me was trying desperately to get past me.   Drivers in the lanes on either side of me passed me, but at least I wasn’t in their way. 

At the second stop light, I accelerated a little harder.  At 3,000 rpm, the noise and roughness began.  3,000 rpm seemed to be a virtual red line.  I held up someone in an American sedan, but the driver considerately waited half a block to go around me. 

The Captain Buys a Car Company

Is this the future of the automobile industry?  The Captain, Roger Penske, CEO of PAG (Penske Automotive Group), is buying a car company; but he is not buying the whole company.  Instead, he is buying only the Saturn distribution network and the rights to the Saturn brand.  Under the terms of the agreement GM would continue production, under contract, of the Saturn Aura, Vue and Outlook models until the middle of 2011.  In the meantime, PAG will be looking for cars from other manufacturing sources. 

This turns the automotive industry on its head.  Instead of an automotive manufacturer controlling the dealerships, the dealerships will outsource production.  Is this an unfair advantage? 

Roger Penske is probably the most successful racing team owner in the history of motor racing.  Others, Enzio Ferrari for example, may have won more races; but only Penske parlayed his racing team ownership into a business empire. 

RF and Analog Moving to Center Stage

The RFCMOS, BiCMOS, BCD and analog market is an area of the semiconductor industry that has never been viewed as mainstream.  These markets have traditionally depended on proprietary products and technologies which demand a significant investment of time and brain power.  Many companies shied away from this segment because it just wasn’t sexy enough, or they just didn’t have the requisite expertise to function in these markets.

At the 2009 TSMC Technology Forum in San Jose, the company announced a focused effort on the ‘more than Moore’ technologies such as RFCMOS, high voltage, BCD etc.  The company is going to focus a portion of their R&D budget on developing processes and support services on analog mixed signal products.  TSMC has traditionally focused on digital CMOS processes which serve a very broad market. 

Cadence Design Systems has been a major player in this market for some time and continues to place more emphasis on aiding mixed signal ASIC designers with better tools, IP and design services. 

Auto Makers' Gamble: Gas or Electric

In the middle of a financial crisis, automobile makers worldwide are facing an enormous gamble.  While sales and profits are at a low point, they are being forced by events to invest in hybrid electric vehicles that have an unproven demand. 

Taxpayers are angry.  They believe that their tax money is being used to rescue car makers from problems caused by their own bad management.  They want the car companies to become leaner and more efficient; with lower pay, fewer retirement and health benefits for line workers and drastically reduced compensation for top-level executives.  At the same time, politicians and the public are pressing for green solutions.  Unfortunately, developing those solutions will take money, something that is in short supply at auto companies. 

There are several emerging technologies, gasoline direct injection, dual clutch transmissions and electronic valves for example, that together have the potential of improving the efficiency of gasoline engines by 15% to 25%.  The investment needed to incorporate those technologies is much less than the investment needed to develop hybrid electric cars.  The improved gasoline engine cars would be less expensive than hybrid electric cars; and the auto companies would make a profit on them, which may not be achievable for hybrid electric vehicles for five to ten years. 

MOST: A Better Automotive Infotainment Network Not Invented Here

Picking on US automakers today seems like piling on, but I have a beef.  Why do US companies always seem to be the last companies in the world to adopt new automotive electronic technologies?  There are many examples, but two will suffice.  In the mid nineties it was J1850 for multiplexing.  The world was moving toward the CAN bus, which originated in Europe.  While US auto manufacturers dithered over J1850, the CAN bus became universal.  Today, it is MOST (Media Oriented Systems Transport), an automotive infotainment network.  MOST also originated in Europe, developed by the  MOST Cooperation, which was founded by Audi, BMW, Daimler, Harman/Becker and SMSC, the core partners that now form the MOST steering committee.  The MOST Cooperation now includes 16 car makers and 80 suppliers.