The global new energy vehicle (NEV) industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two years, especially in Chinese markets where 6.46 million NEVs were sold in 2022 — an impressive 89.5% YoY growth. The penetration rate of NEVs jumped from 14.3% in 2021 to 25.6% in 2022.
The global automotive MCU industry has also grown hand in hand, largely in part due to the explosive growth of NEVs and their tight supply-demand relationship. In 2022, the global automotive MCU market generated US$8.286 billion in revenue — an 11.4% YoY growth. Looking ahead to 2023, the market is predicted to grow 4.35%, reaching a value estimation of US$8.646 billion as a result of continued market expansion and technological advancements in the NEV industry.
Automotive MCUs to undergo a technological and demand revolution
More advanced NEVs will demand higher processing power from MCUs, requiring them to bear heavier performance loads. Foundries such as NXP, Renesas, and Infineon are working to improve the performance of their automotive MCUs through a two-pronged approach: Upgrading the manufacturing process and testing out new forms of storage to prevent a performance bottleneck.
Demand for automotive MCUs will be significantly boosted in the short term as NEVs become more intelligent, functional, complex, and comfortable. In the long-term, the electrical architecture of NEVs plans to shift from a decentralized to a more centralized design, consolidating multiple functions into one domain controller. While this will increase performance loads for MCUs, it also means a fewer number will be needed.
Chinese automotive MCU market experiences boom as domestic production ramps up in the face of a global shortage
China’s automotive MCU market has rapidly expanded in the past three years due to two factors: First, a global shortage has provided Chinese manufacturers an opportunity to break into the market. Especially since China is the world’s largest producer of NEVs, which translates to a higher demand for MCUs than any other region. In the past year alone, 16 Chinese manufacturers have launched their own MCUs; while some are currently in the certification process, others have already entered production.
Second, in the midst of a domestic production boom, an increasing number of Chinese automakers have switched to using domestic MCUs. Domestic NEVs account for more than half of China’s market share, providing Chinese MCU manufacturers with more opportunities to cooperate with Chinese automakers. A number of Chinese automakers have even begun investing in domestic MCU manufacturers.
Over the past three years, the rapid expansion of China’s automotive MCU industry has helped them gain a competitive edge within the market. In the mid- to long-term, China’s MCU market will continue to grow thanks to ramped up domestic production and a thriving NEV market.
On October 7, 2022, the U.S. government imposed export regulations restricting China’s access to semiconductor technology. In particular, the sanctions pertained to manufacturing equipment required in the production of 16nm/14nm or more advanced logic chips (FinFet, GAAFET), 18nm or more advanced DRAM chips, and NAND Flash with 128 or more layers. It’s evident that the U.S. intends to restrict China’s semiconductor manufacturing to 1Xnm. Moving forward, 28nm processes are likely to be included in the next set of regulations as some equipment used in manufacturing 28nm nodes can also be utilized in more advanced processes.
TrendForce predicts that upcoming U.S. export regulations will further focus on 28nm processes. Not only can 28nm manufacturing equipment be used in more advanced processes, but tight restrictions have forced Chinese companies to focus their efforts on expanding their 28nm operations. 28nm processes can be used to produce a large variety of other products: SoCs, ASIC AI chips, FPGAs, DRAMs, NAND Flash, ISPs, DSPs, Wi-Fi chips, RF components, Driver ICs, MCUs, CISs, DAC/ADC chips, PMICs, and other core components in a wide range of applications. If the U.S. allows Chinese companies to accelerate the expansion of their 28nm processes, China’s importance in the supply chain for terminal products will continue to climb — ultimately setting back the U.S’s efforts to decouple itself from China.
China still unable to fully manufacture 28nm chips domestically as expansion exhibits signs of slowing down
China cannot fully rely on domestic production for their 28nm semiconductors. If the U.S. chooses to move forward with restricting China’s access to 28nm manufacturing equipment, expansion will surely grind to a halt. China currently possesses equipment that is able to clean, backgrind, etch, and sediment for 16nm/14nm or more advanced processes. However, this is not enough for China to achieve semiconductor autonomy. Semiconductor manufacturing is relatively complicated as it involves thousands of processes; Chinese factories are only involved in a few of the processes — the majority of which depend on American and Japanese factories. All in all, with China’s semiconductor industry largely focused on 28nm/40nm and more mature processes, it will be difficult for them to achieve semiconductor autonomy for processes more advanced than 28nm by 2028.
Tesla recently announced that its next-generation EV platform will reflect a 75% reduction in SiC components, though this reduction will be made without compromising vehicle performance and safety. This announcement is one of the very few specific details that Tesla has provided to the public about its plan for the development of its future vehicle models. Therefore, it has also trigger a variety of speculations across the automotive industry. According to TrendForce’s investigation, Tesla does not appear to have much confidence in the stability of the supply chain for SiC components. In the past few years, Tesla has been forced to initiate several recalls for the Model 3. One official reason given for the recalls was that the inverters of some of the Model 3 had power semiconductor components with minor manufacturing differences. As a result, these inverters could malfunction after a period of operation and would not able to perform the regular task of current control. This explanation directly points to a quality issue with the SiC components that Tesla has procured for its vehicles.
Additionally, a production capacity crunch for substrates has been the most significant challenge in the development of the market for SiC components. The major suppliers for SiC components and SiC substrates such as Wolfspeed, Infineon, and STMicroelectronics are currently adding a lot more production capacity. At the same time, Tesla is proceeding with the strategy of diversifying its suppliers for SiC components in order to minimize the risk of disruptions in the supply chain.
SiC components are certainly a key category of automotive electronic components that EV manufacturers like Tesla are going to consider when building their future vehicle models. Therefore, in the context of technological advancements, TrendForce believes that Tesla could adopt a hybrid SiC-Si IGBT package for the inverter of its next-generation EV platform. However, switching to such solution will entail disruptive innovations at the engineering and design levels, so this transition will raise many challenges. Also, regarding SiC MOSFETs that have been a critical part of today’s EVs, TrendForce anticipates that their mainstream structural design will transition from planar to trench. Currently, Infineon, ROHM, and BOSCH are the main suppliers for trench SiC MOSFETs.
On the whole, the hybrid SiC-Si IGBT package and trench SiC MOSFETs are technologies that can substantially reduce the total cost of SiC components for a vehicle. They also reduce the complexity and cost of an entire vehicle platform. These benefits, in turn, can help raise the penetration rate of SiC components in the low-end and midrange segments of the EV market. On the other hand, the widening adoption of SiC components could affect the market share of Si IGBTs.
In the market for automotive SiC components, Tesla has been acting as a major indicator of demand and product development trends. Therefore, the semiconductor industry has been paying close attention to this carmaker’s activities. Since Tesla has so far given very few details about its next-generation EV platform, TrendForce says more observations are needed to determine the reasons behind the reduction in SiC content.
According to TrendForce’s latest investigation, Chinese foundries have already suspended plans to expand production capacity for advanced processes after the US government began restricting the exportation of equipment and technical support for processes related to non-planar architectures. TrendForce believes that a further tightening of the restrictions on lithography equipment will mainly affect mature processes, especially the 28nm. Chinese foundries might proceed more slowly in adding new production capacity or raising output for the 28nm process due to the prolonged reviews on their equipment purchases.
TrendForce semiconductor analyst, Joanne Chiao, said that Chinese semiconductor companies have already suspended the development of chips featuring the GAA architecture (i.e., nodes that are generally ≤3nm) after the US government began restricting the exportation of EDA tools and related technical support. If we talk about the FinFET architecture that Chinese foundries are able to produce for now, it is possible to achieve the faster computing speed of the more advanced chips by combining multiple lower-end chips. However, it might also be very challenging to raise the production yield rate of a solution that integrates multiple chips, not to mention that the power consumption of such solution might be very high as well.
Seeing the US export control, for now, US government has not imposed restrictions on the exportation of technical support for processes related to planar architectures. On the other hand, Chinese foundries might halt their advanced chip (14nm) production at any time if they encounter an equipment malfunction or another problem that requires technical support from US equipment providers.
At last, Chiao emphasized that the US sanction has definitely accelerated the development of an “all-China” semiconductor manufacturing supply chain. Nevertheless, the world’s top eight semiconductor equipment providers all come from Japan or the US. From the perspective of the foundry industry, it will be hard for China to realize a wholly or mostly native semiconductor supply chain within the foreseeable future.
Tesla has caused a lot of buzz in the global car market by cutting prices across several regional markets. The US, China, Europe, and Japan have all seen a significant drop in prices of Tesla vehicles, with magnitudes ranging from 6% to 20%. The US, in particular, has seen the largest cut in the average price of Tesla vehicles. The price of the RWD version of the Model Y has come down to USD 13,000, showing a reduction of 19.7%.
Tesla Aims to Increase Market Share and Put Pressure on Competitors
Tesla sold 1.313 million battery-electric vehicles (pure electric vehicles) in 2022 and retained its leadership in this niche segment of the car market. However, its market share for battery-electric vehicles has been shrinking from 24.5% in 2020 to 20% in 2021 and just 17% in 2022. This in part has to do with the rising number of entrants this market as well as the rising number of battery-electric models that are being offered by these competitors. Furthermore, China accounts for more than half of the global electric car market. Therefore, Tesla has found that its sales performance in China significantly affects its overall market share.
In the Chinese electric car market, sales efforts are concentrated on “economical” or affordable models that are priced within the range of CNY 150,000~200,000. Before Tesla initiated its recent price cuts, the starting price of the Model 3 had been at CNY 265,900, which is way above the mainstream price range.
However, the price of the Model 3 has been slashed by 13.5%, with the starting price now arriving at CNY 229,900. Since the price difference between the Model 3 and the competing economical models has shrunk to 15%, Chinese consumers that are mostly residing within the CNY 150,000~200,000 range could be much more receptive to Tesla’s messaging. Also, many Chinese carmakers have lately raised prices on their electric models because of high cost pressure. Tesla is thus expected to benefit by taking the opposite approach for pricing.
Turning to the US, the biggest benefit that Tesla has touted for this round of price slashing is the eligibility of its vehicles in obtaining a tax credit of up to USD 7,500. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 contains a provision that subsidizes the purchasing of a new electric car with a tax credit. Electric SUV or vans that are priced no higher than USD 80,000 and other types of electric vehicles that are priced no higher than USD 55,000 are eligible. In the case of Tesla’s Model Y, the version with three rows of seats (i.e., a total of seven seats) can apply for the tax credit as an electric SUV, whereas the version with two rows of seats (i.e., a total of five seats) can apply for the same benefit as one of the other types of electric vehicles.
For consumers in the US, the price of the Long Range version of the Model Y in 2023 is now 31.1% lower than it was in 2022 because of the price cut and the tax credit. Besides turning consumers’ heads, Tesla is also putting a lot of pressure on its competitors with this undercutting strategy. After all, Tesla’s vehicle models tend to serve as the base standard for carmakers’ electrified offerings.
Tesla Has a Firm Grasp on Fluctuations in Prices of Key Components, Thereby Making Cost Sensitivity a Competitive Advantage
In addition to discussing the effects of Tesla’s price cuts on itself and competitors, and other important issue that needs to be addressed is why Tesla can lower prices when other carmakers are compelled to raise them. To answer this question, we first turn to Tesla’s profit margin. Compared with its competitors, Tesla has a larger room for profit. Therefore, it can lower prices in exchange for more vehicle sales and market share.
This leads to the question as to how Tesla has attained such a large profit margin. The answer is that Tesla is excelled at managing its cost structure and supply chain. With respect to supply chain management, Tesla takes a different approach and has gotten involved more deeply than do other carmakers. For instance, Tesla directly sources components and do not rely on Tier-1 suppliers for system integration.
By contrast, traditional carmakers assemble vehicles with the finished parts provided by Tier-1 suppliers. From Tesla’s perspective, directly sourcing components and doing its own system integration offer some notable advantages. First, this approach facilitates the adoption of the latest technologies at the component level. Second, Tesla is much more aware of costs and also exerts a greater control over them. On the whole, Tesla has a better sense of the price fluctuations in the upstream than do its competitors.
The degree of Tesla involvement in its supply chain is also reflected in its activities in the global lithium market. The soaring demand and the Russia-Ukraine military conflict caused lithium prices to rise rapidly during the 2021~2022 period. Carmakers now recognize that the only effective way to secure the supply of raw materials and control the costs of these materials is to manage the upstream.
However, Tesla is not simply securing lithium supply contracts. It is also thinking about getting involved in ore mining and metal refining. Tesla’s activities in recent years have led to a capacity crunch in the market for mining and processing lithium ores. Since lithium is incorporated into power batteries through multiple phases of additional processing, carmakers tend to suffer the most when it comes to lack of price transparency.
（Image credit: Tesla LinkedIn）