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Chip maker touts safety record

Automotive News reports on Freescale Semiconductor, a major supplier of computer chips to the automotive industry.

The semiconductor industry has maintained a "phenomenal" track record in automotive safety, even with the rapid expansion of electronic content in vehicles, says the head of the world's leading supplier of automotive computer chips.

Toyota's recall has some experts questioning the role of electronics in car safety. But Rich Beyer, CEO of Freescale Semiconductor, said the quest for safety is one reason that chips have proliferated. For example, Beyer told Automotive News, "airbags fundamentally could not have come into existence without incredible advances in sensor technologies."

He declined to comment specifically on Toyota Motor Corp.'s case. The automaker repeatedly has denied that electronics are to blame for unintended-acceleration incidents that triggered massive recalls.

The concern is that the proliferation of electronics inside vehicles, along with electromagnetic waves from cell phones and other outside sources, could have led to electromagnetic interference. That would cause chips to react to signals they weren't supposed to receive.

On average this year, vehicles worldwide contain about $275 worth of semiconductors, reports the research firm iSuppli Corp. That's up nearly 4 percent from 2009, and iSuppli expects that to grow 2 percent by 2013.

Beyer said the semiconductor industry is diligent in shielding products from electromagnetic interference. "It's probably the most rigorous process in the world, with the exception of things that go into aircraft and space," Beyer said.

Active safety technologies, such as electronic brake assist and lane-departure warning systems, have become a major growth area, Beyer said. Chassis and safety systems account for about a third of automotive semiconductor spending, iSuppli data show.

Freescale, of Austin, Texas, has supplied the auto industry for about 30 years and sells chips to most of the world's major automakers. It competes against such semiconductor makers as Infineon Technologies AG and Renesas Electronics Corp. Freescale, a former Motorola subsidiary, also supplies processors used in consumer electronics and industrial applications. Tier 1 supplier Continental Automotive Group is the company's biggest customer, according to Freescale's annual report.

Automotive business accounts for 34 percent of Freescale's revenues, which last year totaled $3.5 billion. The total was down about a third from 2008, in part because of the downturn in the auto industry.

Beyer said his company doesn't rely only on higher industrywide vehicle production to boost its fortunes. It also counts on greater chip content per vehicle. One driver of that: green technology. Semiconductors are at the heart of hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as fuel-saving stop-start and direct-injection systems.

Another fast-growing part of Freescale's automotive business is supplying chips for in-vehicle telematics. For instance, General Motors Co. worked with Freescale to develop a smartphone application for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid car, and Ford Motor Co. uses Freescale chips to run its Sync system.

Beyer said infotainment is starting to grow at the same pace as other consumer electronics, such as smart phones and electronic book readers.

"The automotive industry was somewhat sleepy for many years," he said. "Today the automotive industry has become one of the most exciting areas for the electronics industry."

(Source: Automotive News)