For years, surging demand for mobile phones with built-in cameras has fueled rapid growth for complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensors, which are used to capture electronic pictures in cameras, cars, computers and other products. Researchers at IC Insights report that worldwide demand for CMOS sensors has more than tripled during the past decade – from $4 billion in 2007 to $12.5 billion in 2017.
With digital cameras now standard in nearly all smartphones, demand for image sensors might have been expected to level off. But instead, CMOS image sensors appear to be entering a new growth phase, as product developers find new applications for its use in areas such as home security, medical imaging, virtual reality, quality control and, especially, automotive safety.
The auto industry is now the fastest growing new market for CMOS image sensors. IC Insights expects the automotive market to generate $1.83 billion in additional CMOS image sensor demand from 2015 to 2020. That’s more than the combined growth forecast for medical, security and mobile image sensors.
CMOS sensors are already finding their way into cars equipped with advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) capabilities, such as backup cameras, blind spot detection, collision avoidance, lane-departure warnings, gesture recognition and adaptive cruise control that adjusts to changing traffic conditions.
The next big growth opportunity for automotive image sensors, however, is likely to be self-driving vehicles, which IHS Markit predicts will reach demand of 1 million vehicles a year by 2025. All the major automakers, along with dozens of ambitious newcomers such as Apple, Baidu, Google and Uber, are racing to develop self-driving vehicles, with the first models expected to reach the market in the next three years.
Researchers at Smithers Apex forecast that by 2027, each fully automated driving vehicle will require 25 or more onboard image sensors to constantly monitor surrounding traffic and potential obstacles. But because motor vehicles must endure extreme temperatures, dust, vibration, low light and limited power, image sensors intended for automotive use require different capabilities than those used in camera phones.
Image sensors are inherently complex devices that combine multiple analog, digital and mechanical elements. And especially in the automotive sector, all those things need to coexist and perform together flawlessly, often while operating in a harsh environment with limited available power and very little space. It’s a challenging market with little or no room for failure.