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Can SiC and GaN-based power electronics open a “window of profitability” for the automotive semiconductor industry?

by Asif Anwar | Jul 16, 2019

We’ve just released the Strategy Analytics Powertrain Body Chassis & Safety (PBCS) service report, “HEV-EV Semiconductor Technology Outlook: What Role will SiC and GaN Play?” that looks at the power electronic semiconductor technologies that are currently underpinning hybrid electric and fully electric vehicles and how this will evolve over the next production cycle in the automotive industry. One thing is clear - as HEV/EV (hybrid electric vehicle/electric vehicle) platforms become a greater proportion of the global vehicle manufacturing mix, the demand for power electronic components will also grow, and we forecast that they will account for over 55% of the total semiconductor demand from the HEV/EV powertrain by 2026.

Efficiency is key in choosing the future power semiconductor architectures for HEV/EV platforms, and SiC and GaN technologies certainly offer significant advantages. Generally speaking these can be summarized in terms of the ability of these materials to handle higher frequencies, operate at higher voltages, offer improved efficiencies in terms of reduced resistive and switching losses, while also offering superior power and current density performance underpinned by improved thermal conductivity.

These characteristics translate into tangible benefits for components and the subsequent systems designed using these semiconductor technologies, which can be summarized in terms of:

  • The Size of components and systems can be reduced while maintaining performance parameters comparable to existing technologies. Conversely, the size of a system can be maintained while offering significantly improved performance.
  • Reduction in system Weight translates into more efficient drivetrains and reduced load on the battery, translating to longer ranges (which has the added operational benefit of reducing driver “range anxiety”). Additional benefits could include the ability to use the same battery pack for larger vehicles or provide enhanced performance versions of a vehicle.
  • Power conversion efficiency can provide a further boost in terms of range, longevity and performance, with 3 to 4% efficiencies translating to a significant reduction in power consumption.
  • Cooling requirements can be reduced, leveraging the thermal conductivity characteristics of these wide bandgap materials in conjunction with their ability to handle higher current loads, which again leads to higher system efficiency, simplified thermal management requirements and increased durability and reliability.

Off course, these characteristics do not immediately translate into a replacement cycle where silicon-based BJTs, MOSFETS and other components will be swapped out wholesale. Primary considerations of cost, reliability and maturity will generally dictate a ten to twenty year (or more) lag between the introduction of a “wonder material” and actual practical implementation of said technology in the marketplace. Furthermore, Si technology still has some performance overhead that it can tap into to improve switching losses and efficiencies. Coupled with advances in packaging technology, this can serve to stretch out the timeframe over which newer technologies such as SiC and GaN make any in-roads into the HEV/EV automotive power semiconductor market.

Nevertheless, SiC and GaN technologies are starting to get some traction (pun intended). SiC is the more mature of the two technologies with 650V and 1200V parts starting to compete with Si-based components for the main inverter as well as being implemented into the DC-DC converter and the OBC (on-board charger). Toyota, working alongside Denso, demonstrated the viability of SiC back in 2015 using a “Camry” hybrid prototype, while early examples of SiC use in production vehicles have focused on the premium sector, with for example, ST Microelectronics reportedly supplying SiC MOSFET modules for the Tesla Model 3.

However, concerns around surety of material supply constraints as well as associated costs and yield issues do appear to have served to slow the implementation of SiC-based systems in the volume segments of the HEV/EV market, and our analysis shows that silicon-based IGBTs, MOSFETs and SBDs will continue to dominate the power electronics landscape of the HEV/EV automotive power semiconductor market. So, can SiC and GaN-based power electronics open a “window of profitability” for the automotive semiconductor industry?

The analysis presented in “HEV-EV Semiconductor Technology Outlook: What Role will SiC and GaN Play?” concludes that there is significant upside potential for companies that are able to leverage the growing opportunity from the HEV/EV sector and SiC and GaN technologies will be part of this mix. Strategy Analytics forecasts that SiC and GaN will collectively account for almost 20% of the HEV/EV automotive power semiconductor market by 2026.

Companies best positioned to take advantage of this growing power electronics semiconductor opportunity need to be able to offer the full suite of technologies, and this is reflected in the activities of Si component market leaders such as Infineon, ON Semiconductor, Rohm and ST Microelectronics that are developing SiC and GaN capabilities through a mix of internal development and external partnerships. Off course, this doesn’t preclude the likes of EPC, GaN Systems, Transphorm and Wolfspeed from disrupting the incumbents.

Industry players should also consider other factors that may influence the future growth of the HEV/EV automotive power semiconductor market including:

  • How do you manage an incumbent technology portfolio as the shift towards emerging technologies dictates more of your R&D and production dollar spend?
  • Merge or acquire – what strategies should companies be adopting to ensure access to the technologies that will further disrupt the power semiconductor electronics market?
  • What is the tipping point for consumer acceptance of HEV/EV use, and how will this be influenced by factors such as “range anxiety” and availability of a robust charging infrastructure?

Check out the report “HEV-EV Semiconductor Technology Outlook: What Role will SiC and GaN Play?” for the full analysis and thanks for reading!

Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss this post and the underlying questions raised. For more information on Strategy Analytics’ extensive coverage of the automotive industry, take a look at the PBCS (Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety), AVS (Autonomous Vehicles Service), AIT (Automotive Infotainment and Telematics) and ACM (Automotive Connected Mobility) services.
HEV-EV Semiconductor Outlook 2017-2026
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