Tuesday, 05 May 2020 18:24

COVID-19 Cuts into Self-Driving Chips, on Top of Crushing Car Sales

Written by Matt Hamblen, FierceElectronics


Self-driving vehicles have long been touted as a means to drastically lower accidents and improve transportation efficiency.

However, analysts believe the arrival of autonomous driving tech will be slowed, probably one to two years, because of the recent drastic downturn in auto sales and production due to COVID-19. Depending on whether the virus reappears a second time, the slowdown could last longer.


FierceElectronics interviewed five analysts who have close contact with chipmakers and auto makers working on revolutionary autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. Most said chip designers will slow down their R&D efforts in coming quarters, even as semi makers and car companies continue to believe in the value of the technology over the long term.


Some carmakers, like China’s Xpeng Motors using Nvidia chips, are even moving ahead with new driving automation, although it isn’t clear how many in the industry will follow suit.


“One of the effects of COVID-19 is that the semiconductor guys are expecting some delays of their [self-driving] development programs,” said Phil Amsrud, an analyst at IHS Markit, in an interview.


“It’s not so much a change in their priorities, but more are saying they are making less money this year, the pot is smaller and their investment in research will be smaller,” he said. “I think COVID will cause a bit of a pause as people look at the economic realities.”  


To be clear, no semi maker is saying any of their driving automation development work is dead or shelved, he added.


The current economic realities are about as harsh as one can imagine, with major car companies like GM and Ford closing plants and making ventilators instead. IHS Markit expects global vehicle sales to decline 22% this year to 70 million units, with a 26.6% fall in the U.S. to 12.5 million units, compared to 2019.


A recent, unpublished IHS Markit survey of 46 companies in the auto integrated circuit (IC) supply chain found nearly two-thirds are expecting a delay in technology deployments in upcoming launches.


“Almost 65% said they see delays in technology deployment of upcoming projects,” Amsrud said. Just over 20% said there would be no delay of new technology or product development.


The companies in the survey are all semi suppliers who make a breadth of products including components, diodes, transistors, memory, microcontrollers and ASICs. More than 100 companies globally make IC products for ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) and autonomous driving, according to IHS Markit.  


Even before COVID-19 hit, there was a profound shift in the industry over the past two years to a focus on ADAS with its lower technology aspirations and an earlier return on results than on AV. The highest level of autonomous driving, Level 5, calls for complete automation where a vehicle has no steering wheel or pedals. 


“At that highest level, companies are now saying, ‘This is really hard and a lot harder than we thought it would be,’” Amsrud said.


Level 5 is now widely viewed as the vehicle automation equivalent of a Mars shot, he added.


But even lower levels of automation will be affected by delays in R&D, including Level 3, where the vehicle itself controls all monitoring of the driving environment, through sensors like LiDAR. At that level, a vehicle that can’t detect roadway conditions with snow or fog would likely turn over all driving control to a human operator. 

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