By Greg Gao
China’s automotive microcontroller (MCU) suppliers have moved onto fast growth track in the past two years, due to the capacity shortage of the major overseas manufacturers, geopolitical tension, and China’s push for a stable and safe domestic chip supply chain, according to a report released by JW Insights early this month.
In 2022, there was the continued shortage of automotive MCUs, which will continue in 2023, an industry insider said. Kristin Dziczek, a policy advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, pointed out in a recent report that the automotive chip production capacity shortage will persist until 2024.
Tech media Digitimes also reported such a situation because supply growth cannot keep up with the rapid increase in demand.
Globally, trends such as automotive electrification and intelligence are prompting more applications of electronic components in automobiles, and the demand for MCUs continues to be high. Semiconductor manufacturers estimate that a car needs 20-30 MCUs, while future luxury models may require as many as 100 MCUs. This will result in a larger automotive MCU market.
Global automotive MCU giant Infineon stated last month that due to the limited increase in the supply of MCU with mature processes, the company’s MCU business is expected to grow by 2.5 times in the next few years.
For a long time, the six major MCU suppliers - Infineon, NXP, Microchip, Renesas, ST, and Texas Instruments - dominated nearly 90% of China’s automotive MCU market, and the localization rate in China is far below 5%. However, in the past two years, local automotive MCU suppliers in China have sprung up rapidly and have made some substantial progress.
Market research firm IC Insights’ forecast showed that the total MCU sales are expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.7% from 2021 to 2026, reaching $27.2 billion by 2026. The global MCU sales will increase by 10% in 2022 to a record high of $21.5 billion, with automotive MCUs growth faster than most end-use categories. In the entire automotive MCU market, more than three-quarters are 32-bit MCUs.
Faced with the first-mover advantage of international MCU giants, as well as the high barriers to entry and long R&D cycle of automotive MCUs, most Chinese MCU companies choose to start from the low-end auto body chip field.
The more outstanding players are BYD Semiconductor, ChipON(芯旺微), CHIPWAYS, AutoChips(杰发科技). Although the entry barrier for low-end auto MCUs is relatively low, the competition is fierce. Entering the mid-to-high-end MCU market is the ultimate goal of Chinese MCU vendors.
Chinese companies are focusing on the 32-bit MCU sector as well. ChipON, Flagchip(旗芯微), SemiDrive(芯驰科技), Yuntu(云途), and CVA Innovation(曦华科技) are building product development and process systems that meet the ISO 26262 standard for product safety and reliability to highest standards possible.
As the world’s largest automotive electronics market, China’s domestic substitution efforts bring a golden opportunity for local suppliers. They started with auto body control ships. They are expected to launch higher-performance MCU products for the entire domain control, engine control, and powertrain, said JW Insights’ report.
China’s suppliers also face daunting challenges. Many industry research institutions predict that this round of the semiconductor growth cycle will end in 2023. With the advent of the cycle downturn, both established and new players have to face the competition of leading global companies.
China’s automotive MCU vendors also have to prove that their products can meet the requirements of automotive regulations. That requires longer period verification and continuous product improvement over three to five years. They need to convince more domestic automakers and Tier 1 suppliers. Only when price can be controlled within an acceptable range while making the product well will Chinese MCU suppliers gain more market share, JW Insights concluded.