CAMBRIDGE, England—Autonomous and electric vehicles will drive demand for printed electronics over the next decade, according to a new report by IDTechEx. The research company predicts that the automotive printed sensor market will reach $960 million by 2034.

“Historically, printed electronics technologies have nurtured a close relationship with the automotive sector, with printed force sensors pioneering passenger safety through seat occupancy and seatbelt detection,” says Jack Howley, Ph.D., a technology analyst at IDTechEx. “However, if the automotive sector is to continue to be a reliable revenue stream, printed electronics technology providers must adapt to address the emerging technical challenges facing future mobility.

“Printed electronics can play a role in supporting emerging electrified and autonomous mobility, such as augmenting LiDAR sensors or optimizing electric battery deployment,” claims Howley. “Demand for technologies that enhance passenger experience and vehicle aesthetics will continue to grow, and printed electronics can supply low-power, lightweight lighting solutions for these.”

As vehicle autonomy levels advance, Howley believes that the increasing number and distribution of spatial mapping sensors required will need continuous performance improvements to ensure passenger safety. Emerging printed electronics technologies can augment these sensors, extending detection bandwidth and maximizing reliability during operation.

According to Howley, transparent conductive films (TCFs) are being developed to heat and defog LiDAR sensor panels, ensuring the function is unperturbed by external environmental conditions. Properties such as high transparency and low haze are important for defogging. They can be easily tuned using the wide variety of material options available for TCFs, including carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires.

In the future, Howley says printed electronics may play a more active role in autonomous driving systems. Emerging semiconductive materials, such as quantum dots printed directly onto conventional silicon image sensor arrays, can extend detection range and sensitivity deeper into the infrared region.

In the short term, vehicle electrification efforts will drive demand for printed electronics, particularly in battery and drivetrain applications. Printed pressure and temperature sensors measure battery cell swelling and thermal profiles, providing granularized physical data that can be used to optimize battery deployment and recharging.

Hybrid printed sensors that combine integrated printed heating elements could be a way to actively address battery temperature. Howley estimates that printed sensor-enabled battery deployment and charging optimizations could provide up to $3,000 in savings per vehicle.

Another potential application for printed electronics could be automotive lighting, especially as OEMs and suppliers develop new features.

“Lighting elements are emerging as a prominent differentiator, described as ‘the new chrome’ by Volkswagen's chief designer,” explains Howley. “The use of in-mold structural electronics enables the integration of embedded lighting elements using existing manufacturing processes. 3D electronics technologies are intrinsically attractive for automotive integration, as functional layers are conformable and lightweight while easily embedded within existing aesthetic elements.

“Leveraging printing techniques to provide solutions that slot into existing manufacturing processes and designs will be crucial,” warns Howley. “The printed electronics technologies most likely to realize revenue potential are those that can adapt to service emerging challenges already known to the automotive industry.”