Automotive MEMS sensor market to exceed record shipments in 2010

The market for automotive microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensors is expected to expand considerably in 2010, according to market research, following a downturn in 2009.

It is thought that the market will hit record size this year with shipments of automotive MEMS sensors expected to reach 662.3 million units, up 32.1 percent from 501.2 million in 2009, meaning that the end-of-year levels will even exceed the pre-financial crisis 2007 figure of 640 million units, according to iSuppli.

“The recovery in automotive MEMS shipments represents a happy turnaround from the depressed levels of 2009 when shipments cratered and reached a nadir, and the years ahead will provide additional room for expansion,” said Richard Dixon, senior analyst for MEMS and sensors at iSuppli.

It is thought that growth will slow in 2011 following such a boom in recovery this year, though it is predicted that shipments will still climb 7.3 percent, before growing again year on year until reaching approximately 13 percent in 2014.

One of the contributing factors to the swift growth of automotive MEMS is the use of sensors in cars which support mandated safety technologies such as electronic stability control (ESC) and tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS).  MEMS sensors also have a wide array of applications outside of the automotive industry, including PS3 controllers iPods and even Segways. But one of the primary applications are features for safety systems within automobiles.

The US and Europe have both adopted legislation on safety systems with Australia, Canada and others following suit, meaning that the industry is seeing accelerated overall adoption rates around the world.  Similar mandates are also beginning to be adopted in South Korea and Japan, the extra opportunity for both ESC and TPMS for automotive MEMS suppliers in these two countries potentially amounting to $120 million in the next five years.

China will also create substantial demand for automotive MEMS.  Though it uses around 50 percent less in low and mid-ranged vehicles, China will see penetration increase in powertrain applications in order to reduce carbon emissions and as safety sensors for additional airbags and ESC systems.

New applications which are helping boost automotive MEMS sensor growth are gas sensors which enable greater control of air quality inside a vehicle, infrared thermopiles which monitor temperature, microbolometres to aid night vision systems and MEMS oscillators that can boost rear-view cameras.

More consumer-oriented MEMS suppliers are also expected to move into the automotive market, for example STMicroelectronics is producing a high-g accelerometer for the airbag market having previously been more focused on applications such as car alarms and navigation. 

The widening of the market in this sense is expected to lead to price pressures and new cost structures within the industry.

Dixon notes however that sensor fusion could be a contentious issue as, while the sales of accelerometers used to measure incline as part of an electronic parking brake (EPB) will continue to accelerate in Europe, EPB prospects are also dampened by ESC systems, which already contain the 2-axis accelerometers capable of delivering the required inclination signal for parking brakes.

“Sensor fusion uses existing sensor signals and adds application algorithms to augment existing systems, such as ESC with features like hill-start-assist functionality, for instance,” Dixon said. “This is a bane for sensor suppliers, which must rely on opportunities that involve standalone systems to provide additional sensors. On the other hand, inclination-based car alarms do not access accelerometers in ESC systems and require standalone accelerometers,” he added.