TOKYO -- Renesas Electronics Corp., the chipmaker that bottlenecked much of the auto industry when its plant was damaged by Japan's 2011 killer earthquake, has not just recovered -- it now plans big growth thanks to its takeover of an American rival.
Bunsei Kure, installed as Renesas CEO last year, is targeting expansion by rolling out new computer chips for autonomous driving and advanced safety systems that are faster and use less energy.
Renesas is already the world's largest supplier of automotive microprocessors. The umbrella term covers both system on chip, or SoC, semiconductors and microcontrollers, or MCUs, the semiconductors that control everything from fuel injection to power windows.
But the company now will tap new segments through its acquisition of Intersil Corp., a U.S. microchip maker it agreed to buy for $3.2 billion in September.
The Intersil take-over is key to Renesas' drive into autonomous cars, Kure says.
Intersil, of Milpitas, Calif., makes chips that manage energy usage and convert analog signals into digital ones -- both important functions in a self-driving world.
In an interview at Renesas' global headquarters here, Kure noted that Renesas already held the top market share for automotive microcontroller units.
"I don't think we needed another MCU company," he said. "But getting into autonomous driving and the internet of things, we need the surrounding pieces of the puzzle to be competitive."
Autonomous driving requires computers to conduct a dizzying number of calculations at higher and higher speeds. They must make split-second driving decisions to avoid crashing.
But that eats up more power, stressing the car's electrical system. It is especially critical as automakers shift to electrified drivetrains in which battery capacity is at a premium.
"All those things require electricity," said Kure, 60, who became CEO in June. "On vehicles, how to reduce energy consumption and how to reduce heat is key."
To tackle this, Renesas will roll out more efficient chips, aided by its Intersil purchase.
Autonomous cars use sensors that "see" the analog world around the vehicle. They measure temperature, sound, light, movement -- all in analog form -- and then convert those signals into a digital format that the car's computers can work with.
"We have to convert that signal into digital, and then our microcontrollers make the recognition and decision," Kure explained. "Then we need to move the steering or apply the brakes, so we need to actuate motors. Then to actuate those things, we need to convert the signal back into analog again."
Renesas previously didn't cover those areas. Buying Intersil filled the gap.