The worldwide automotive industry continues to enjoy a period of relatively strong growth and profitability. Annual sales are finally hitting prerecession levels in many regions but, according to industry executives, the global automotive market remains an uneven one and growing economic uncertainty means that the next few years will likely see significant changes for both OEMs and their suppliers.

Christian André, President of ROHM Semiconductor Europe, agrees, “While the outlook in the US is a positive one there are certainly worries over the strength of the economy in China, which isn’t good news for European exporters, and for Europe which is itself confronting the risk of deflation and what that could mean for consumer confidence.”

According to industry commentators there are three powerful forces which are impacting the automotive industry, from shifts in consumer demand, to expanded regulatory requirements for safety and fuel economy, and the increased availability of data and information.

“The main trend we are seeing from car OEM’s is the need for compliance with the legislation on CO² and increased requirements when it comes to the safety features involving ADAS,” André suggests.

“The translation of these regulations will help to drive demand and the adoption of new applications will require solutions to be competitive and, as a result, new technologies and materials will be necessary. The vehicle’s powertrain is one of the key market drivers for ROHM and we are working intensively on new power discretes, power IC’S and power passives. We want to become a one stop shop for our customers.”

The automotive semiconductor market performed strongly last year and that strong performance was, according to André, thanks in part to, “the increased amount of semiconductor content in the vehicle combined with a continuous increase in passenger car production. From a system prospective, lighting, the powertrain and infotainment were the main drivers involving sensors, power, linear and micro’s and we expect this growth will continue.”

Among the key product segments to watch are telematics and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), according to industry analysts.

“We’d agree with that,” says André. “At ROHM we look to address these applications with analogue IC’s , discretes and passive working with our tiers 1 and 2 customers but also in partnership with the big SoC suppliers, but we have been successfully delivering our products to the market for several years.”

In the future Andrés see growth being driven by power devices.

“To improve fuel consumption combined with the increase in the digitalisation cars will require higher power rails such as 48V battery, a new generation of devices with a lower switching losses capabilities and for IC’s more effective and flexible power management capability with more intelligence.”

Where is the impetus for innovation coming from?

“Some of the innovations we are seeing are coming from the challenges associated with global warming, which are being addressed by legislation, “ explains André, “but it is also coming from user’s experiences which is helping to inspire new players to enter the automotive market.

“Technology trends in the automotive space are encouraging new industries such as service providers, software developers and infrastructures specialists to enter.”

As the automotive market has evolved so ROHM has sought to expand its product portfolio.

“ROHM used to be a Japan centric company. Today our corporate strategy is to realise more than 50% of our sales from outside Japan,” explains Andrés. He continues, “As a result we are investing a lot to improve our overseas organisation. For example we are setting up IC design centre capability in the EU to address the automotive market there.

“We acquired SiCrystal in 2009, a Nurnberg-based company, that produces SiC (Silicon Carbide) wafer substrates to address the next generation of HEV and EV with our double trench MosFET in SiC and just recently, we have announced the acquisition of Powervation, a company located in Ireland and an expert in digital power management in order to expand our product offering in power management LSI.

“Last but by no means least we bought an 8 inch wafer Fab in Japan from Renesas and it will start to produce our IGBT and sensors in 2016.”

The Internet of Things, or the Internet of Vehicles, is having a significant impact on the automotive industry and André sees it as providing a great opportunity for semiconductor suppliers in the arena of connectivity.

“We expect to see the demand for various types of sensors soar over the coming years.”

With the development of so many new applications are we at risk of overloading drivers with information?

“I don’t believe that will be the case,” says André. “I believe that more information will raise peoples’ confidence and trust in the technology. Our aim has to be to protect them from unexpected situations.”

Security is in the news and Rohm is looking to address growing concerns over the connected car in terms of IT security and the protection of personal data and cyber attacks.

“We work with our customers to add security features in our product to secure the system but we believe it is the role of standardisation bodies to help the industry to overcome these major concerns.”