From the first simple wired sensors in the mid-20th century that detected fuel level or oil pressure, a car's ability to monitor its own condition has become more and more important.
Dozens of sensors per car, working alone or in groups, now provide functions as simple as detecting an open fuel cap to as complex as identifying a pedestrian at night and activating automatic emergency braking.
The prospect of true self-driving cars is opening up other frontiers and business opportunities for suppliers, such as long-range lidar that creates complex, 3D “point clouds” to accurately measure distances, or in-car biometric monitoring to adjust the temperature of each seat.
"If you start looking into the car where the sensors are hidden it's amazing, really, the number of applications is going through the roof," said Frank Findeis, vice president for automotive sensors at the German semiconductor maker Infineon, which along with Robert Bosch is one of the top two suppliers for the automotive semiconductors that are the "brain" of modern sensors.
"If you go into an entry-class car, you probably end up with 20 to 50 sensors that use semiconductors," Findeis said. "If you go to a high-end car you easily end up with 100."
Tier 1 suppliers such as Bosch, Continental, Valeo and ZF Friedrichshafen are pushing the sensor market forward, offering their customers everything from single sensors or the software needed to activate them, to a complete system that integrates different sensors such as cameras and radar.
It can be difficult to measure the size of the sensor market because nearly every supplier considers it from a different angle, according to their strengths. All agree that the sector will continue to grow strongly for the next decade in most, but not all, areas, because the automotive megatrends -- electrification, automation, mobility as a service -- are not possible without sensors.
A recent study by Roland Berger found that the overall bill for the electronics in a midsize premium car with an internal combustion engine was $3,185 in 2019. By 2025, that cost will rise to $7,030 for a comparable battery-electric car. A significant chunk of that increase, about $413, will be for radar, lidar, camera and ultrasonic sensors to facilitate driving assistance, the consultancy said.
The consulting company McKinsey estimates that the overall sensor market will grow by 8 percent annually until 2030, outpacing the overall automotive market (see chart, below).