DETROIT – Hitching its fortunes to soaring automotive demand for 32-bit embedded microcontroller units (MCUs), supplier NEC Electronics Corp. is aiming to leapfrog two major competitors to become the No.1 automotive MCU supplier by 2010.

MCUs are specialized computer chipsets used to control and manage a multitude of functions within vehicles, from sophisticated audio systems to airbag controls. Their use in vehicles has been growing rapidly, particularly in North America, where the growth rate of 6.8% is higher than in Japan and Europe.

32-bit MCUs, far more powerful than older 8-bit designs, are being adopted by auto makers at an even faster rate, growing 14.5% in North America, according to a recent study.

Research firm Gartner Dataquest currently ranks NEC as the No.3 MCU supplier worldwide, behind Freescale Semiconductor and Renesas Technology, ranked No.1 and No.2, respectively, in MCU sales worldwide.

But officials at NEC say the supplier is leading in the fast-growing 32-bit MCU segment.

It also is expanding into the hottest electronics areas in automotive, including body; safety; and audio applications; where OEMs have been receptive to its strategy of offering standard products and software that can be reused in varied applications.

Surging automotive demand has led the company to add capacity to its production facility in Roseville, CA; expand its automotive headquarters in Dallas, TX; and open a sales office in Detroit.

In addition to MCUs, NEC also makes other electronic products that include graphics controllers, vision processors, power Mosfets and analog ASICs.

For instance, NEC last August, in conjunction with Toyota Motor Corp. and Denso Corp., introduced the Imapcar image processor for vehicles.

The device can detect nearby objects, such as vehicles; pedestrians; and lane markers in real-time, which allows auto makers to design new types of safety and collision-prevention systems.

The Imapcar processor is part of the pre-crash safety system on the new Lexus LS460 luxury sedan.