Qualcomm 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 like Qualcomm.
Submit a car for network certification?
There are two problems with making an auto-grade LTE chip set (rather than modules). One, a modem chip set needs to support the complexity of bands and constant changes in cellular networks, in order to respond to operators' requirements -- on the global market. "Six or seven years ago, there were only CDMA and GSM. We only had to support two or three different frequency bands," said Duggal. "When the entire world moved to 3G, we need to handle six to 10 bands." But today with 4G LTE (which needs to be backward compatible), "We are talking about supporting 51 bands."
Another problem is "network certification." The chip set needs to be qualified not just to be "auto-grade," but it needs to go through a rigorous certification process set by a cellular network operator.
Assume you already have an auto-grade modem chip set. But how would you make sure a car integrated with that particular auto-grade chip set will pass a given cellular operator's network certification test? Submit a whole car to network operators? Obviously, this is an approach that presents far more logistical challenges than what’s demanded by operators for handsets.
More logical is to build a modem module -- which includes everything from baseband, power management ICs to RF, memories, and antenna -- and make that module auto-grade. Then, have the module certified by network operators. Under this scenario, Qualcomm remains a Tier-3, and the company must rely on such module vendors as LG, Sierra Wireless and Gemalto to do the heavy lifting required for cellular network and automotive certification.
Still, the best way to keep a modem module "very current with an operators' network is to depend on "the module eco-system for the long-term reliability," said Duggal.
In its ambition to become a Tier-2 supplier for auto-grade chip sets, Qualcomm has been working hard. The task includes choosing the right process technology for automotive qualified chips. "This is a very serious initiative," said Duggal.
Qualcomm, however, is not designing the same Snapdragon apps processor twice -- one for smartphones and another for cars. "Because we have a lot of Snapdragon apps processors in our CE portfolio -- more than what automotive companies need," Duggal said, “our job is to identify the automotive industry's needs, look at technology capabilities that can meet auto-grade, and make appropriate decisions on solutions that can be taken to the automotive market."
The tricky part, however, remains the balancing act between the urge to use advanced technology and the discipline to go after the rigorous reliability demanded by automotive market.