REUTLINGEN, Germany -- To understand the future of the high-tech automobile, check out the $1.1 billion "clean plant" built here in 2010 by Robert Bosch GmbH.
The plant produces pressure sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes that feed data to the computer chips that control a vehicle's engine, stability control system, airbags and other key components.
These devices, dubbed micro-electromechanical systems or MEMs, have proliferated as vehicles get smarter. A car or truck built today might have 50-plus MEMs sensors, including some no bigger than a square millimeter.
Last year, Bosch sold enough of these sensors to generate sales of $790 million -- far ahead of competitors Sensata, Freescale and Denso, according to consultant IHS Automotive. Sensata Technologies Holding NV, a Dutch company, was second with sales of $268 million.
Sensors and software help standard mechanical systems operate more efficiently -- a high priority for automakers.
Global industry sales of sensors and related devices totaled $2.6 billion last year, and IHS expects revenue to rise steadily to $3.4 billion by 2021.
Automakers are snapping up sensors for such hot technologies as gasoline direct injection, vacuum brake boosting and fuel vapor pressure regulators, according to IHS.