“Chips” refers to several various types of semiconductors, the two most common types of which used in road vehicles are “discretes,” which are single-function devices such as transistors that manage electrical current and other basic processes in complex devices, and “analogs,” which monitor and control comfort, convenience, entertainment, safety, and electromechanical features. Hundreds of billions of units of both types are used by the automobile industry annually, in addition to other, less prevalent types – such as microprocessors, microcontrollers, logic chips, and memory chips.
Microchips are classified by physical dimensions, node size (the width of their connection to the circuit board they are installed to) and wafer diameter (which determines how many functions can be impressed upon a chip). Automotive chips utilize mature “legacy” technology, based on >40 nanometer (nm) node size/<200 millimeter (mm) wafer size, which were introduced between the 1990s and 2011. That’s eons ago relative to the release of the latest 5nm node/300mm wafer spec used in PCs.
Smaller chips offer advantages in terms of power and portability when it comes to handheld or personal devices. By contrast, automobiles are among the physically largest chip-using product platforms, and it would be superfluous to use a smaller node size. Furthermore, automotive applications must meet the ISO 2626 “Road vehicles – Functional safety” standard — that is, the chips in question must legally be rugged enough to endure tens of thousands of miles of service in the jarring, exposed automotive environment and last through the PZEV 15-year/150,000-mile warranty mandate. Neither chipmakers nor automakers want to unnecessarily run up against that requirement.
While the 40-plus nm/200mm standard may be past its prime in other electronic use cases, it’s far from obsolete, and still accounts for 54% of installed microchip production capacity. So automakers are satisfied to continue relying on legacy-size chips – along with many other industries, such as defense, transportation, and energy. The global chip supply chain has usually worked well in everyone’s interest – but then came COVID-19.