The Automotive Market is a Mirage for Traditional Chip Makers

High unit volume, limited revenue, and razor thin margins

There’s been a lot of buzz around the in car entertainment market lately thanks to the launch of Apple’s CarPlay. This technology is an extension of Apple’s iOS operating system that allows iPhone owners to pair their phones to their cars and enjoy a more or less native iOS experience rather than the consistently awful user interfaces that automaker have saddled their cars with since the early 2000’s. The simplest way to think of it is as slightly more integrated version of the display to projector or external monitor options found on most PC. The car’s touch screen and button based controls become dumb peripherals for controlling your iPhone. Thanks to Apple’s efforts consumers finally have what they’ve always wanted their in-car entertainment systems to be, extensions of their phones.

Apple Carplay

Of course CarPlay is vendor locked to Apple’s device and Google is heavily rumored to be working on its own version of CarPlay for Android devices. Microsoft will likely chime in at some point with an extension for cars of their Windows Phone OS. Let’s assume that automakers bow to consumer demand and add support for these extensions. Within five years the kludgy, counter intuitive, and poorly supported vendor specific infotainment systems that we have now will be a cringe worthy memory of the past. Instead you’ll pair your phone to your car with Bluetooth or WiFi Direct and then watch as your mobile OS takes over and gives you access to the features of your phone without the hassle of actually using your phone while driving.

That said the focus of this article isn’t on the advent of cars as extensions of phones but rather the implications of this trend upon traditional mobile chip makers. As it is there are only a few competitors in this market: Texas Instruments, Broadcomm, Renesas, Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Intel. TI is probably the largest player in the automotive market at the moment simply due to its extremely large portfolio of products for cars that range from infotainment chips to chips for anti-lock braking and stability control. There are a lot synergies within TI product portfolio, consequently automakers have been slow to move away from the company’s products. Certain car makers like Audi, Tesla, and others have been using chips from Nvidia’s Tegra line.  Although all signs point to car makers consistently picking the cheapest chips that Nvidia has to offer. Intel has forged partnership with other automakers like Nissan, Toyota, Kia, and Hyundai to use its Atom chips in select cars. Qualcomm is also a major player in this market thanks to its wireless modems.

According to Nvidia’s own numbers their automotive business represents about $100 million business annually. Intel for its part has announced a $100 million investment fund for getting into the automotive business but considering that the company hasn’t talked about its automotive group lately it’s likely that this business is either smaller than or of a similar size to Nvidia’s. Considering that TI’s automotive group tried to sell itself in 2013 for $1.5 billion it should be clear by now that automotive chip market is a relatively small opportunity to begin with. Thus for the aforementioned chip makers with the exception of TI the success or failure of their efforts in the automotive sector is not very meaningful to their overall financial health.

As smart phones have advanced from tools to the center of modern-day life the need for a smart phone like experience in cars has become apparent. In the early 200’s we saw the first built-in GPS navigation systems in cars and from there we’ve seen more creative efforts like Toyota’s powertrain monitor tools for its hybrid vehicles and BMW’s iDrive interface. But with the forthcoming tools from mobile vendors to make these systems extensions of their phones I believe we’ll see the raw processing power of these systems begin to stagnate as automakers focus on integrating higher quality touch screens and more phone-like controls so that in-car entertainment systems will become a conduit for smartphones rather than a separate system.

This won’t happen immediately as the plans to get Intel’s Atom’s, Nvidia’s K1, and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 602A into at least some cars are well underway. But with this new paradigm of cars as extensions of phones there’s no longer any need for cars to have their own 3G, 4G, or GPS connectivity let alone SoC’s capable of doing meaningful work. All that will be required of car makers is to provide a system that supports integration with you phone’s OS and that has a decent screen and a SoC powerful enough to parse user input and display a UI stream from your phone. Phones will continue their role as conduits to the cloud services we use as cars become dumb terminal for those services thanks to more meaningful integration with our phones.

Thus as interesting as all this noise that silicon vendors are making about the automotive market is we are more than likely sitting just before the peak of this market which should crest around the end of the year. It’s been a long 5 plus year slog for SoC companies like Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Intel to work their way into the automotive market but thanks to the ineptness of car maker’s efforts and the thoughtfulness of the current major mobile OS vendors the automotive SoC market is leaving us before we even really had a chance to get to know it.

Although considering how little car manufactures were willing to pay for the SoC’s they wanted I’m sure there are plenty of people that will be glad to hear that this little adventure is coming to an end.S|A

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.