Google's autonomous car may be a boon to chip industry

Coming fleet of driverless cars need computer 'smarts' available in specialized chips

Google's autonomous car is expected to boost not only robotics research but the semiconductor industry as well.

IHS, an industry analyst firm, Thursday said its researchers are projecting that sales of Automotive Safety Integrity Level-compliant microcontrollers and processor units will grow from $69 million last year to almost half a billion dollars by 2020. Automotive Safety Integrity Level-compliant microcontrollers have to meet road safety regulations.

IHS also noted that analysts expect revenue for sensors used for autonomous applications, like optical sensors, to grow seven-fold from 2013 to 2020.

"Google has made a leap with a pure driverless car - a car without human intervention, steering wheel and acceleration or braking pedals," IHS said in a statement. "This leap will boost revenue growth for semiconductors over the next five to six years."

"Unlike today's autonomous cars, Google's driverless car totally depends on its sensors, semiconductor integrated circuits and algorithms running inside several electronic control units," the statement said. "The absence of human intervention in driverless cars demands higher functionality--via algorithms and chips."

Google has been working for several years on the development of a self-driving car. Prototypes have been put to the test on highways and even city streets.

Google last week disclosed that it has built an autonomous car from the ground up - one with no steering wheel, no accelerator and no brake -- and there's no way for a human to take over.

Google executives have even reached out to the auto industry in Detroit to form development partnerships.

Nonetheless, the company has yet to put a timeline on when its self-driving car will be ready for sale.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said he thinks the IHS projections are solid even though it's still unclear when Google's autonomous cars will become generally available.

"I think the forecast is reasonable given most mid-tier and all premium-tier cars have camera systems," said Moorhead. "I think 10 years from now, we will be in a stage of hyper-growth for autonomous cars. Remember, Google isn't the only one working on these. Every major carmaker has completed prototypes."

The autonomy built into any car - whether it's a fully autonomous car or one that can simply parallel park itself - needs computer chips to function.

"To produce a good driverless car, you essentially need to put yesterday's small super-computer in your car," said Moorhead. "The car needs to see so you need a lot of different kinds of cameras. That data needs to be processed in real-time to recognize the objects it sees and determine an immediate course of action. That requires a lot of new silicon that wasn't required in previous cars."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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