Automobiles Are Now Computers on Wheels

Semiconductors, the ubiquitous microelectronic devices that run everything from microwave ovens to space shuttles, are now being purchased by the automobile industry at the rate of $8 billion a year.

And no one is benefiting more than Motorola, one of the world's largest producers of semiconductors.

Today, semiconductors are used with everything from air bags and anti-skid brake systems to seat controls and clickers that unlock your car without a key.

Automobile companies are enthusiastic. Bill Giffen, the component engineering manager of Ford Motor Company, says, "We're always looking for ways to do things electronically versus mechanically. You can customize things more easily. You can fine-tune things to a smaller detail than you typically can with mechanical systems, so we're always looking for opportunities."

Which is good news to the big semiconductor manufacturers like Intel, Texas Instruments, and Motorola. The latter saw its sales of semiconductors for automobile components grow 30 percent last year, a generally bad year for the industry, says Herb Shukman, director of Motorola's market development for the automotive segment.

Inevitably, according to Giffen and Shukman, it will keep growing. Thirty-seven percent of the cost of BMW's new 7-series car is electronics. Giffen says Ford's electronics content represents 15 to 20 percent of total manufacturing costs. Meanwhile, revenues from sales of semiconductors to the automotive industry have grown steadily. Shukman estimated "semiconductor expenditures for strictly automotive electronics" at about $8.2 billion in 1996. He expects it to grow another 20 percent in 1997.

What's behind it? Giffen attributes the growth in automotive semiconductor sales to government mandates. "We keep getting goals for higher fuel mileage or better emissions or whatever. So we've got increased performance requirements which drive the semiconductor consumption for those kinds of applications."

But government regulations are not the only reasons for increased semiconductor use. "Antitheft is a big push," said Giffen. "In Europe in the last few years we added features to disable the car radio if it's stolen. If the thieves have no market, they don't steal them. The same thing is true for the vehicle. If you can disable the vehicle, it discourages thievery."

The disabling antitheft feature will be put into several Ford-made vehicles. "This year we added capabilities to the Mustangs which have cut down on '96 models being stolen. Thieves have a lot harder time getting the vehicle mobile."

Probably the most exotic use of semiconductors is in-car navigation systems that use a global-positioning satellite receiver, so a motorist can input location and destination and get a map displaying the route.

Several US and European car-rental agencies are purchasing autos with the systems, and one version is available as a factory option in some Oldsmobiles.

Look for it in the next James Bond film.

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