Texas Instruments: from calculators to cars

Lauren Silverman May 5, 2015

Texas Instruments: from calculators to cars

Lauren Silverman May 5, 2015

In the 1980s, Texas Instruments was excited about its microchips in a hot toy called the Speak & Spell.

TI’s Speak & Spell used the first single-chip voice synthesizer, a tiny device that just a few years later gave the beloved alien E.T. a voice. 

E.T. took advantage of the microchip, and later so did some Chrysler vehicles. 

Despite its reputation for calculators, Texas Instruments isn’t new to the car business. TI’s automotive business is growing faster than the rest of the company, thanks to selling microprocessors and car technology.

“Most of the major car brands have TI tech inside of them that you don’t even know about,” says Automotive Processors general manager Curt Moore.

Microprocessors created by TI are in lots of cars, including Fords and BMWs, where they help control everything from car windows to power steering.

Still, it’s no surprise the average driver isn’t familiar with the company’s car accessories. The names don’t exactly roll off the tip of your tongue: There’s the DRA7XX and the integrated C66X digital signal processor—all part of the Jacinto family of processors.

But break through the technology jargon and you’ll find a multi-billion dollar industry shaping your driving experience.

Infotainment And Heads-Up Displays

Inside TI’s Dallas showroom, music blasts from a new car infotainment system.

“The way people now differentiate cars is via infotainment and active safety,” Moore says. “So all the car companies are looking at how you create that unique experience using electronics that are going to be safer, greener and more fun to drive.”

Moore says car companies are turning to chipmakers like TI and demanding newer, faster microprocessors to build safer, more autonomous cars. One feature that’s taken off is the heads-up display.

These displays are a sort of alert system for drivers. Cameras outfitted on the car monitor the surroundings and then project images in a corner of the windshield.

In one display car in the showroom, the windshield shows a traffic sign and two pedestrians up ahead. Both are outlined in neon green.

“So the system would recognize this is a caution sign, would recognize there’s two pedestrians in front of you, and then it could automatically help the car stop and prevent an accident,” Moore says.

In 2013, just two percent of cars used heads-up displays, most of them in luxury vehicles. Now, automakers are taking advantage of cheaper cameras and processors from chipmakers, and they’re outfitting more affordable cars with collision avoidance technology and fancy dashboards.

“So for the chip makers it’s an extraordinary opportunity,” says David Sedgewick, a senior writer for Automotive News. He says chipmakers are all fighting to get their silicon in your car first.

“It’s going to be a dog fight because it’s a tremendous growth industry. No one can do this right yet, but they feel they can’t wait,” Sedgwick says.

The largest chipmakers are drawing in billions of dollars from automotive sales. So for TI, investing in smart car technology was easy math—no calculator required.

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