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Semiconductors: Your car is a computer on wheels

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

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Commenting on February 2022 sales data released on Friday, Rajesh Menon, the director general of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), said, “Sales in February 2022 declined compared to February 2021—across passenger vehicles, two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Supply-side challenges like semiconductor shortage … impacted sales.”

Semiconductor (chip) shortage

By now, it’s fairly common knowledge how the chip shortage started:

—During the first lockdown in 2020 and the shift to work from home and study from home, people bought laptops and mobile devices in unprecedented numbers;
—Sales of gaming devices shot up (urban kids were at home, not on playgrounds);
—Car sales picked up after the 2020 lockdown and pent-up demand meant orders piled up.

Cars, mobile devices, laptops and gaming consoles … all need chips to work, and chip industry couldn’t supply to this demand.Then, some black swan events impacted chip production—winter storm shutting down chip plants in Texas in early 2021, fire at Renesas Electronics’ chip plant in Japan in mid-2021, and surge of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia in late 2021.

Automotive analysts FE talked to said that the chip shortage may continue for the rest of CY22, though it might start to ease a bit. While India has sanctioned Rs 76,000 crore under the PLI (production-linked incentive) scheme to encourage manufacturing of chips, it will take time to fructify.

But where are chips in cars?

Have you ever wondered how at the touch of a button the car window opens and closes, how if another vehicle comes closer your car’s sensors start beeping, how a slight push to the accelerator pedal can enhance the power delivery of the engine in a fraction of a second?

There is something working deep inside a car—software codes that make these physical acts possible. That software runs on a microprocessor.

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

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

The usage 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 so on.

This usage, Raman added, is only going to go up with the mass arrival of electric cars. “Electric cars, in addition to the above, use various controllers for managing the electric powertrain. The key components of the e-powertrain—including the battery, motor, inverter and the charging system—require additional electronics and semiconductors. Further, some auxiliary systems, such as the compressor, vacuum pump and regenerative braking systems, need to be converted from mechanical to electric type to suit electric car requirements, leading to additional usage of semiconductors,” he said.

In a typical contemporary car, the share of electronic components by value may range from 10-15%, “but in electric cars this may be about 1.5 times that in conventional petrol/diesel cars,” Raman said.

The usage of chips is also increasing due to the rising popularity of connected cars in India. These cars have an inbuilt eSIM, and offer features such as voice-based navigation, voice-assisted phone calls, in-car air quality monitoring, remote engine start, and are also capable of over-the-air software updates. A lot of companies—from Kia to Hyundai to MG to Tata, and others—today sell connected cars in India.

It’s not just advanced cars, even the seemingly ‘simpler’ vehicles such as entry-level motorcycles or tractors need semiconductors. “Almost all vehicles that have some or the other automatic function need these devices,” Sable said.

So the next time you observe your car responding to your voice or the AC maintaining the cabin temperature or the anti-lock braking system helping avoid an accident, do remember that software running on a tiny chip the size of a thumbnail is helping the car do that.

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