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Chip manufacturers are going back to the future for automotive silicon

Where we're going, we don't need 5nm

Analysis Cars are gaining momentum as computers on wheels, though chip manufacturers' auto focus isn't on making components using the latest and greatest fabrication nodes.

Instead, companies that include Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co and Globalfoundries are turning back the clock and investing billions in factories that use older manufacturing techniques to make chips for vehicles.

The rapid digitization and electrification of cars has created a giant demand for smaller, more power-efficient auto chips, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research. He added that cars don't necessarily need the latest manufacturing processes, though, and many are still using analog-based components for various functions.

Some chips in cars today are made using the same process nodes used in 2005 to make PC chips, McGregor said, adding that many factors go into the optimization of chip packages, including the desired battery life of the vehicle, the maximum distance between charging and refueling, and the weight of the car.

That said, some cars are equipped with advanced chips, fabricated using newer techniques, to handle artificial intelligence, infotainment, and communications. But don't forget, car makers are also keen on advancing microcontrollers on larger process nodes for applications like braking.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. which makes cutting-edge mobile chips for Apple and Qualcomm, expects chips for cars to take on more manufacturing capacity in the future. The company is investing billions in factories, including one due to open in Japan in 2024, to make 22- and 28nm chips.

TSMC is investing $100bn in new factories over the next three years to address chip shortages in areas that include cars.

"TSMC's participation in the global automotive IC market is only about 14 per cent, and we are doing our part to support our automotive customers with what they need. However, we cannot solve the entire industry's supply challenge," TSMC CC Wei said on an earnings call last week.

Until last year, the booking window for car makers on automotive chips was 12 weeks, but that has now been extended to at least 12 months, IHS Markit said in a recent study.

"OEMs are even reportedly exploring booking capacity at tier-2 foundries such as TSMC or GlobalFoundries over a year in advance, a move that is in stark contrast with previous practices," the research firm said.

Intel will commit foundry capacity for automotive customers at the Ireland fab campus, Intel spokesman Jason Gorss told The Register. The company last month said it was investing €5.5bn to expand factory operations in Ireland.

"The Ireland facility is capable of supporting a range of advanced process nodes. We are currently talking with automotive customers to determine the best technologies to address their product needs now and in the future to develop our roadmap," Gorss said.

Semiconductors will be about 20 per cent of the bill-of-materials of a car by 2030, growing from 15 per cent in 2025, and 4 per cent in 2019, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said during at the iAA Mobility keynote last month. Intel estimates the market for auto chips to be $115bn in 2030, compared to $50bn this year.

Globalfoundries has filed for an IPO with the goal to expand manufacturing plants in Asia, Europe and the US. The company is expanding a manufacturing operations in Dresden, Germany, which is close to automakers. The factory is uses CMOS and FDX process technologies on nodes from 55nm down to 22nm.

"We have developed many technologies that are well-positioned to be the semiconductor backbone of fully autonomous vehicles, such as our FDX platform for mmWave RADAR applications and SiGe for battery management," the company said in a prospectus.

FDX is an optimized enhancement for manufacturing more power-efficient chips. The feature became available this year in Dresden, Germany for advanced communication chips. ®

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