Marking a new high point for the industry, shipments of automotive MEMS sensors will reach 662.3 million units in 2010, up a robust 32.1 percent from 501.2 million units in 2009. The projected year-end levels—including the replenishment of inventory pipelines that were depleted during the recession of 2009—will exceed even the pre-crisis high point in 2007 of 640 million sensors, iSuppli data research shows.
“The recovery in automotive MEMS shipments represents a happy turnaround from the depressed levels of 2009 when shipments cratered and reached a nadir, and the years ahead will provide additional room for expansion,” said Richard Dixon, senior analyst for MEMS and sensors at iSuppli.
Nonetheless, growth will slow in 2011, with shipments anticipated to climb just 7.3 percent as the market normalizes following the exuberance in 2010. Production then will pick up again in 2012, and growth rates end up north of 13 percent by 2014.
Big Shapers, New Applications
One significant engine of automotive MEMS growth is the use of sensors in passenger cars supporting mandated safety technologies such as electronic stability control (ESC) and tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS).
The United States and Europe have led the adoption of legislation on such safety systems—and other countries like Australia and Canada have quickly followed suit. However, similar mandates are now being adopted in South Korea and are expected in Japan, accelerating overall adoption rates worldwide. The extra opportunity from both ESC and TPMS for automotive MEMS suppliers to Japan and Korea will correspond to additional revenue of some $120 million in those regions alone for the next five years, iSuppli has determined.
China will also account for a large portion of the automotive MEMS action. Compared to U.S. or European vehicles, the electronics content of low- and mid-range vehicles in China is about 50 percent or less, but sensor penetration will steadily increase—first in powertrain applications in order to reduce carbon emissions that choke Chinese cities and afterward as safety sensors for additional airbags and ESC systems.
Among the new applications providing suppliers greater production opportunities for automotive MEMS sensors, the most prominent include usage of gas sensors to control air quality in the cabin; infrared thermopiles to monitor temperature; microbolometers to aid night-vision systems and MEMS oscillators to boost rear-view cameras.
Sensor fusion will be a contentious issue, however, Dixon said. While the sales of accelerometers used to measure inclination as part of an electronic parking brake (EPB) will accelerate in Europe in the next five years, EPB prospects are also dampened by ESC systems, which already contain the 2-axis accelerometers capable of delivering the required inclination signal for parking brakes.
“Sensor fusion uses existing sensor signals and adds application algorithms to augment existing systems, such as ESC with features like hill-start-assist functionality, for instance,” Dixon said. “This is a bane for sensor suppliers, which must rely on opportunities that involve standalone systems to provide additional sensors. On the other hand, inclination-based car alarms do not access accelerometers in ESC systems and require standalone accelerometers,” he added.
Other applications that will propagate the use of sensors include passenger protection systems that detect impacts by means of either accelerometers or pressure sensors located in the front bumper; as well as stop-start systems that need pressure—and other non-MEMS based measurements to supply critical data when a vehicle’s engine is turned off at a junction, Dixon said.
Inroads Also Being Made by Consumer-Oriented Suppliers
iSuppli also notes that some consumer-oriented MEMS sensor suppliers are making inroads into the automotive market, widening the pool of players participating in the space.
In particular STMicroelectronics— the leading MEMS supplier for consumer and mobile application and which so far has targeted non-safety critical applications in automotive such as car alarms and navigation—has now entered the airbag market with a high-g accelerometer. STM is expected to leverage its significant manufacturing economies of scale, which likely will lead to additional price pressures and new cost structures in the industry.