Chip Maker Sees Big Picture for Cars

Micron Technology adds to its line of image sensors for cars in a bid to gain a piece of the emerging market for camera-driven auto safety equipment.

Micron Technology Inc., best known for producing computer memory, hopes its latest camera chip for automobiles will catch a ride in new types of safety gear.

The Boise, Idaho, chip giant, which has been plowing along in the automotive electronics market for about four years, released a new image sensor chip for automotive cameras, earlier this week.

The chip, dubbed MT9V125, is available now. But given that its designed to be incorporated into cameras, which car manufacturers will then design into new models, it may not hit the market in cars until the end of next year.

Although the market for automotive cameras is relatively small at the moment—vehicles such as Toyota Motor Co.s Land Cruiser use the cameras to provide drivers a view of whats behind them—the chip maker believes the space has huge growth potential as new applications in safety and even fuel savings unfold, said Curtis Stith, director of marketing for emerging markets in Microns Imaging Group.

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The market is "small today. Although about a million and a half backup cameras are shipping in Japan" each year, Stith said in an interview with Ziff Davis Internet. "However, there are a number of potential applications that lead us to an analyst forecast of four to 10 cameras per car by 2015."

The expected increases in camera use, which Micron culled from numerous analyst reports, is yet another sign of the broad computerization of automobiles.

Manufacturers have increasingly turned to electronics to help make cars safer and to increase performance or fuel mileage.

Although electronics-driven features tend to come in at the high end of the market first, they traditionally work their way down into less-expensive models over time.

Thus automotive cameras have "a very large market potential, which is why Micron has an interest," Stith said.

Aside from assisting to back up vehicles—an application that itself is expected to see growth thanks to government regulations—Micron sees cameras playing key roles in safety technologies ranging from crash avoidance, including so-called lane departure warning systems, to occupant protection, which are beginning to work their way into the market, now.

An intelligent airbag system, for one, could use a camera to discern important details about a cars occupants, including a persons size and distance from a given air bag, so as to adjust for them during a crash.

Lane departure warning systems basically serve to help keep vehicles on the road. A camera-driven lane departure warning system currently available for Infinitis FX sport utility vehicle, for one, keeps an eye on highway lane markers and alerts the vehicles driver with audio and visual signals if it begins to veer off course.

Cameras used to replace side view mirrors might also help boost fuel economy in some vehicles, such as trucks where large amounts of aerodynamic drag are created by relatively large mirrors. They could also provide warnings when another vehicle enters a drivers blind spots, Stith said.

Some other potential applications include backseat monitors for children, he added.

Thus far, camera-equipped models have been appearing at what most people will probably consider the midrange or high end of the vehicle pricing scale.

The Toyota Land Cruiser, when fitted with an option package that includes the backup camera, stickers for about $60,000, Toyotas Web site shows.

Meanwhile, a two-wheel-drive Infiniti FX model with lane departure warning will fetch about $46,000, its Web site shows.

However, as with other automotive technologies, cameras are likely to start populating less-expensive car and truck models as time goes on.

Legal mandates, including one that says 2007 model year commercial vehicles in Europe must have some system for alerting drivers to obstacles while making right-hand turns and similar one for larger passenger vehicles in Japan, could speed up adoption of camera-based warning systems, at least in some areas of the world and in some vehicles, Stith said.

Indeed, "automotive production is going up a couple percent a year. But the amount of electronics thats penetrating that market is going up much faster. The cars are becoming electronic systems so the opportunity for electronics in automobiles—semiconductor content—is very large at this point."

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