CEO interview: ST’s Chery on automotive, AI and China
However, artificial intelligence (AI) is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary trend, Chery said. ST will address AI and machine learning as options within its microcontroller-based digital strategy, he said in a telephone interview conducted with eeNews Europe from the electronica exhibition in Munich, Germany.
Talking of strategy, one the first tasks Chery gave himself on taking over as CEO of ST in the summer of 2018 was to conduct a strategic review of the company. “The strategic review is almost complete, subject to a final review with the supervisory board some time before the end of the fourth quarter,” said Chery. He added that he would start to communicate the findings of the review in the full-year results in January 2019, and then on multiple occasions up to the Capital Markets day, which is usually held in May.
“As CEO I must be careful not to crystallize too much around a single event. The markets are emotional. There are minor adjustments to be made and they will be disclosed over time. The shareholders did not appoint me as CEO to change everything. If they had wanted that they would not have appointed an insider like me. We will continue to focus on the megatrends; industrial, automotive, smartphone and communications,” Chery said.
With regard to the automotive sector Chery said: “Electronica is amazing but clearly there are challenges ahead for the automotive sector, including German companies. This is because of Californian company successes. The electrification of the automobile is a major disruption of the industry affecting tier ones, car makers.” It is also notable that Chinese car makers and the Chinese market continue to grow in significance.
Next: New dynamics
Chery added that there are dynamics present that were not there six months ago. “The electric car is a megatrend and it equalizes the barrier to entry. This is accelerating and transformational and we have to deal with it.”
And what about artificial intelligence (AI) which seems to be the hot topic right now?
Chery acknowledged that AI has proved transformational in the datacentre and is now moving to consumer equipment and edge devices where it will also have an impact; but he declined to use the word revolutionary. “AI-at-the-edge is an incremental improvement that will boost the digitalization of IoT,” said Chery.
He said ST’s strategy will be to address it through the company’s STM32 microcontroller family. Initially by providing easy-to-use tools that will allow the creation and training of neural networks in software and subsequently to provide options to boost performance of those networks through optional DSP-like hardware accelerator cores on the microcontroller chips.
What ST does not plan to do is what a lot of startups have done; try and create the definitive neural processor as a full ASIC or application processor, Chery said.
He said that ST has AI experience from working on the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations of Mobileye ICs with AI embedded within them. While it represents a way of tackling otherwise hard-to-solve tasks it also raises a lot of questions about safety and where liability lies.
“I don’t want to be engaged in a very application-specific processor again,” he said, in an apparent reference back to the ST-Ericsson smartphone processor project that lasted from 2009 to 2013 and was the cause of years of financial losses at ST.
Next: In-house PCM but not MRAM
Over the last 18 months one of ST’s differentiating technologies has been the decision to go with phase-change memory (PCM) as an embedded memory option for automotive microcontrollers on its 28nm FDSOI process (see ST samples MCU with embedded phase-change memory).
“We are totally steady on that. There is a demonstrator car with MCU and PCM. We are working a lot on the mission profile for the chip, the chip materials. It is much more than promising and we are naturally looking to extend this to secure microcontrollers and general-purpose MCU, particularly where we require AI and lots of memory.”
However, ST is not looking to research magnetic RAM, which is a popular alternative for embedded memory at advanced silicon manufacturing nodes (see IEDM: Intel embeds MRAM in FinFET process, ARM backs embedded MRAM on Samsung’s FDSOI process, Globalfoundries offers embedded MRAM on 22nm FDSOI).
Chery said that when ST develops technology it does so for reasons of differentiation and competitive advantage. If ST wants to use MRAM it can get this technology from multiple foundries, Chery said. “But we don’t want to rely totally on foundry for our MCU business. It would be crazy to follow a me-too strategy. If we want to use MRAM we can do it through foundry. But PCM helps us address the automotive industry and secure microcontrollers.”
However, Chery is no doubt also aware that more advanced versions of MRAM under development around the semiconductor industry may yet have an impact on processor architectures by allowing an almost instant pause-and-resume functionality (see ARM, Applied, seek to replace SRAM with MRAM).
Time is always short at electronica so we were allowed one more question: Is China a good region to engage with today?
“Not especially today; but generally, yes. ST’s is focused on automotive, industrial, communications infrastructure and China is very pleased to use ST’s technology. We use our distribution channel and encourage investment in field application engineers in Shenzhen, Shanghai, Chengdu, all over,” Chery said. “And we want to leverage the big OEMs in China.” Chery said ST does not want to see tariffs as the result of any US-China trade war and added: “We expect things will be harmonized at some point,” he said.
“We have some of the best technologies including 28nm FDSOI, excellent microcontrollers and with PCM coming. I am sure the Chinese will be pleased to adopt them,” concluded Chery.
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