Samsung Electronics has chosen image sensors as its next-generation business item after memory semiconductors. It has established a “sensor business team” under the System LSI Section of the Device Solution (DS) Division and plans to target the market for image sensors for autonomous vehicles.
LG Electronics also plans to invest in U.S. start-ups to build autonomous vehicle sensors and increase its R&D manpower, indicating that sensor development is emerging as a battleground for electronic parts manufacturers.
Samsung Electronics has reorganized the sensor business team in charge of the CMOS image sensor (CIS) business in the System LSI Section. Process development will be done by the foundry section of the DS Division, while the sensor business team focuses on product planning and sales.
A CMOS image sensor (CIS) converts light from semiconductor devices into electrical signals, like a camera film in a digital camera or smartphone. In recent years, demand has increased in line with the trend of smartphones equipped with multiple camera lenses, and demand is expected to surge further as autonomous vehicles gain popularity. This is because the CIS functions as an autonomous vehicle's optic nerve that recognizes real-time changes in the roads and surrounding environments. Market research firm IC Insights predicts that the image sensor market will grow from US$13.7 billion this year to US$19 billion by 2022.
Samsung Electronics is planning to strengthen sales of image sensors for autonomous vehicles through its new sensor business team. In October, the company unveiled the automotive image sensor brand ISOCELL Auto along with the automobile processor brand Exynos Auto at the International Auto Parts Expo. ISOCELL Auto features higher durability and reliability than previous mobile ISOCELL.
Samsung recently signed a contract with Tesla to supply image sensors for vehicles. Although the contract’s impact on sales is not significant now, it will make it easier for Samsung to do business with other automobile companies. Samsung has been responding to growing demand by converting some of its 11-line DRAM production in Hwaseong plant into image sensor lines.
LG Electronics, which created the "autonomous navigation task force" at the end of the year, is also increasing its investment in vehicle sensors. Recently, it invested in U.S. startup AEye with SK Hynix. AEye has developed the iDAR sensor, which is a combination of LiDAR, high resolution camera and AI algorithms. When LiDAR recognizes the images around the vehicle, iDAR fuses the colors and applies AI to enable more accurate recognition. Currently, LG is also recruiting experienced personnel to the autonomous mobile task force to develop optical sensor software and post system processing.
SK Hynix is also seeking to achieve 1 trillion won (US$900 million) in image sensor sales. As a latecomer in the field of image sensor, it will focus on mid-end products rather than high-end products and increase its market share in China. In particular, SK Hynix has been using DRAMs in marketing image censors, as it has strengths in the memory development, by offering a deal on CIS purchase to a company that buys a large amount of DRAM products. SK Hynix will showcase semiconductor solutions for automobiles by participating in CES 2019 with SK Telecom and SK Innovation next month.