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Tower Says New Tech A Boon For Self-Driving Cars

Chipmaker Tower Semiconductor, with much of its domestic operations in Newport Beach, says it has helped to develop a new technology that will speed up the introduction of self-driving cars, while also finding future applications in robots and industrial production.

The Israel-based company (Nasdaq: TSEM), No. 2 on this year’s Business Journal list of largest chipmakers in Orange County with a foundry and sizeable operations near the Newport Beach and Irvine city lines, called the development made public last month a “breakthrough” for advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) leading to autonomous vehicles.

The chip was designed by researchers from the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, led by researcher SungWon Chung and manufactured by Tower.

The new “breakthrough” feature: cars, drones or robots don’t need any moving parts to continuously steer the emitted infrared light beams to form the all-important 3D image of surroundings when their reflections are captured and analyzed back at the source.

“The ability to do that reduces the cost and the weight and improves the reliability of these systems so that they could someday be made available in a much larger number of vehicles than are available today,” Tower Vice President Marco Racanelli told the Business Journal on Sept. 21.

The potential uses for laser-based LiDAR—light detection and ranging—technology are enormous since Racanelli estimates there are about 85 million new cars produced each year worldwide.

Emerging Auto Sector

Auto-tech, as it’s called, is becoming increasingly important as cars are loaded up with sensors and detectors to turn them into smart vehicles.

Aliso Viejo-based Indie Semiconductor Inc. (Nasdaq: INDI), which went public in a reverse merger earlier this year, is also making inroads into the smart-car world.

Indie, which sports a market cap of around $1.4 billion, recently announced plans to buy Quebec-based TeraXion Inc., a maker of  components used in manufacturing a variety of laser, telecom and sensing systems, for $158.5 million.

Robust Market

Israel’s Tower Semiconductor bought Newport Beach-based Jazz Semiconductor Inc. in 2008 for $169 million, including a large amount of debt. The company, once a unit of fellow area chipmaker Conexant, has its local base along Jamboree Road, next to the Uptown Newport development.

Tower and Indie are part of a robust chip scene in Orange County.

Broadcom (Nasdaq: AVGO), which moved its headquarters to San Jose, also maintains a large presence here and ranks as the No. 1 local chipmaker by headcount with an estimated 1,300 employees in Orange County this year. Tower Semiconductor is right behind in second place with an estimated 800 OC employees.

Other local companies in the semiconductor space include Syntiant, maker of chip units for voice-activated functions in electronic devices; chip startup Mobix Labs Inc., which focuses on next-generation 5G wireless communications; and industry giant Skyworks Solutions Inc.

Local Work

Tower is unique in that it still makes chips in its Newport Beach factory, Racanelli says.

“In terms of a large semiconductor manufacturer, yes, we’re the only ones left here in, I would say Southern California, not just Orange County,” he said, adding some smaller manufacturers may still be here. 

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