Scandals and Tighter Regulations Mean Better Business for MEMS Sensors in Automotive
By Pallavi Madakasira, Lux Research
The automotive industry has gained notoriety in the recent past largely due to massive recalls, putting both the OEMs and regulations under the lens. VW was caught in a vehicle emissions scandal; in 2015 VW also had to recall over 92,000 cars to fix problems with brakes while in 2014, Toyota had similar issues and recalled almost 2 million cars to fix brakes. Other scandals include General Motors' faulty ignition key, and Takata’s exploding airbags.
These recalls and scandals have not only taken a toll on stock prices and consumer confidence in brands but shed light on technologies in place that were not good enough to proactively inform and prevent these fiascoes. In addition, regulations have come under scrutiny, including those in place to enforce NOx emissions (in light of the VW scandal), as well as the ones from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which now requires rear cameras in all new cars under 10,000 lbs. beginning in 2018; further, in response to demand for active and predictive safety systems within the automotive sector, including calls for technologies that can offer prognostic solutions for tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS).
Each of these scandals and/or regulations will actually mean increased demand for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) sensors as OEMs and sensor developers alike look to meet tighter regulations or address unmet needs, respectively. Some of these innovations today are primarily focused on addressing NOx emissions as well as overall active driver and pedestrian safety. Continental for example, announced that it has begun production of urea sensors for the first time to support more efficient exhaust-gas after treatment in diesel engines (a technology it has already to measure oil levels). Similarly, BMW's latest M760i xDrive is equipped with exhaust gas sensors that reach their optimum temperature faster to driver tighter emissions control; it has also introduced its "Active Assist" technology (to enable automatic braking), to take human errors out of the equation.
Sensor innovations in the future will include not just innovative pressure sensors (that are today used widely in a car to check for fuel line pressures) but also innovations (from incumbents and startups) that specifically address tire pressure monitoring systems. While incumbent automotive sensor developers (such as Bosch and Sensata) are well positioned to ride this growth wave, others making a push include Freescale (which now also offers a MEMS sensor specifically to monitor tire pressure in consumer vehicles that not only measure pressure but also issue warnings to the driver and offer a prognosis for each tire’s condition).
Startups such as Bebop develops smart fabric sensors that can read the tire’s profile and road engagement to adjust suspension, enlighten anti-lock braking, and report on tread depth. Others include Melexis, which offers a MEMS pressure sensor only a few µm thick and a few hundred µm long that can be used to measure pressures below 5 bar (that incumbent ceramic or metal materials sensors cannot do today) which will enable not only an accurate measurement of air flow rate but also for accurate monitoring of the fuel line pressure (a problem for Toyota when it recalled cars for braking issues). Both automotive OEMs, as well as electronic component developers, should look to partner and invest in these promising startups.
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March 8, 2016