MADISION, Wis. — It's no secret that apps processors originally designed for smartphones are now driving many digital TV sets. As smartphone apps processors get more widespread and powerful, technologies native to smartphones are spilling inevitably into different segments of the market -- from Machine-to-Machine (M2M) to the medical and even automotive fields.
As much as the whole world likes to tout the connected car as analogous to smartphones (a modem chip for telematics and an apps processor for infotainment), automotive presents unique challenges to chip suppliers.
I recently wrote a story entitled Qualcomm LTE IC Makes (Auto-) Grade, But Only in Module.
The story was about a growing trend among car OEMs embracing consumer technologies. Its essence was to investigate how various chip vendors are scrambling to get their predominantly consumer technology solutions "automotive qualified."
Qualcomm, the world's largest supplier of smartphone chips, is ideally positioned to answer what I call the "auto-grade dilemma." It's a dilemma because moving technologies originally designed for smartphones to automotive use is a big challenge -- especially for a company (Qualcomm) without background designing auto-grade chips from the ground up. The shift requires the smartphone chip giant to juggle three competing needs: 1) ensuring the reliability of its chips (for automotive use); 2) using advanced (and yet somewhat mature) technology; 3) finding the most economical solutions for car OEMs.
In a phone interview with EE Times last week, Nakul Duggal, vice president of product management for Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., stressed that the company is taking a two-pronged approach to automotive: designing automotive-qualified chips for Snapdragon applications processors for cars; and working with third-party vendors to build auto-grade telematics modules that incorporate Qualcomm's consumer modem chips.
For chips that go inside the center stack of a car (for infotainment applications), Qualcomm is committed to upgrading the company's status from a Tier-3 to Tier-2 supplier of auto-qualified parts.
As announced at the International CES last month, Qualcomm is rolling out the company's first auto-grade Snapdragon apps processor by the end of this year, which will go inside 2016 model cars.
Apps processors these days integrate "a lot of technologies on the same die as small as 10x10 mm," explained Duggal. To be a Tier-2 company for apps processor is important so that Qualcomm can control every technology crammed into the SoC, making sure each block is reliable and automotive qualified.
Apps processor designers leverage the advanced process node so that their chips consume less power. They also look to use advanced memory technologies, to enable higher bandwidth, faster speed and higher performance for their devices.
"But take an example of LPDDR4," said Duggal. The low-power double-data rate 4 (LPDDR4) is the cutting-edge mobile DRAM technology about to surface for smartphones.
Could LPDDR4 be used in auto-qualified apps processors today? Duggal answered, "It's not feasible yet." Apps processors for smartphone, whose life cycle is much shorter than cars, thrive on building on a very advanced technology. But to spin that to cars, Qualcomm needs to weigh the reliability factor. The automotive industry hopes to stay as close as possible to the pace of advanced technologies used inside smartphones. But chip vendors like Qualcomm must figure out if the latest and greatest technologies used in smartphones are "mature enough" to yield reliability for automotive qualified solutions.
In contrast, for modem chip sets used in telematics, the module-based approach is the way to go, according to Duggal. He acknowledged, "We've had extensive discussions on this internally." The question was whether Qualcomm should design an auto-grade LTE chip set, instead of relying on third-party vendors to package it in a module and get that module auto-grade certified.
Next page: Submit a car for network certification?