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Driverless Cars Like Google's Will Be a Boon to Chipmakers

If cars are going to drive themselves, they're going to need a lot of chips.


If we’re really headed toward a future where cars routinely drive themselves, then that’s going to be good news for the global semiconductor industry, according to a new report from the research firm IHS.

While there are plenty of chips already going into modern cars — chips that run things like navigation and infotainment systems and track road and engine conditions — autonomous cars like the one Google unveiled at the Code Conference last week add a bunch of new opportunities for chips over the next six years or so, IHS says.

The big issue with a driverless car is safety, and that means giving a car the information it needs to stop in time to avoid an accident, steer around anything that unexpectedly appears on the road and so on. That requires a lot of smarts that will come from chips.

Enough people have been thinking about this that there’s an industry-standard phrase to define it: Automotive Safety Integrity Level, or ASIL. Last year, the market for ASIL-compliant chips was worth about $69 million, but will amount to about $500 million by 2020.

The fastest-growing type of component within that category is the optical sensor, which the firm says should grow by about sevenfold during the same period. That’s good news for Qualcomm, the wireless chip company, whose CEO Steve Mollenkopf said at the Code Conference last week that he’d like to see his firm turning out the “eyes” for driverless cars. The expertise for those chips, he said, would be derived in part from chips used to build the cameras in phones.

Other types of chips that will also likely see growth include Ethernet or FlexRay chips for networking, flash memory chips to store data, and conventional memory chips to process images and execute software code.

And despite the improvements to technology, it will take time for people to accept cars that run without human intervention. IHS makes an educated guess that we won’t see fully-autonomous cars in routine operation without restrictions to roads or limited to low driving speeds (Google’s only runs at 25 miles per hour) before 2030.

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