According to Gartner/Dataquest, the total worldwide automotive semiconductor market for 2007 is estimated to be $20.1 billion dollars; this is expected to grow to $25.9 billion dollars by 2010. Of this, FPGAs currently command approximately $93 million dollars, and they are expected to grow to $312 million dollars over the next three years.
Currently, the vast majority of FPGAs in automobiles are found in Infotainment/Aftermarket and Telematic/Body Electronics applications. The larger FPGA vendors like Xilinx and Altera have tended to focus their efforts on these more "glamorous" applications.
In order to compete, smaller FPGA vendors have to differentiate themselves in some way. Now, new markets are opening up that may facilitate just this. Consider the powertrain, for example, which has remained relatively unchanged for decades. Recently, a profusion of hybrid technologies, electric vehicles, fuel cell cars, E85 fuels, and sophisticated diesel engines have started to appear, and automotive manufactures are scrambling to develop electronic control systems that are equal to the task.
Similarly, new markets are opening up with regard to safety applications such as collision-avoidance systems, blind-spot detection and alert systems, rear-view camera systems, and so forth. In addition to quick time to market and the flexibility to accommodate late-stage design changes, designers of powertrain and safety systems require electronics that are highly reliable, consume little power, and can survive the harshest automotive environments.
Automotive applications that are opening up to FPGA-based solutions
(Image courtesy of Actel).
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The majority of conventional electronic components are not well-suited to these demanding applications. ASICs suffer from high NRE and qualification costs, long design cycles, lack of flexibility, and high risk. Microprocessor control units (MCUs) provide flexibility, but they consume relatively large amounts of power and cannot satisfy the extreme response time requirements of applications like control units for state-of-the-art diesel engines (such closed-loop control units need to be able to monitor and adjust fuel injection on a cycle-by-cycle basis in real-time).
CPLDs have found some uses in these markets, but they offer only modest logic density, they are typically implemented in older process technologies, and they have limited features and I/O capabilities. By comparison, SRAM-based FPGAs can offer high densities and a lot of features, but they are susceptible to firm errors. Furthermore, the higher power consumption associated with SRAM-based FPGAs causes significant self-heating, which limits the larger devices to a maximum operating temperature of around 100°C.
All of this serves to explain why Actel have just announced the industry's first AEC-Q100, Grade 1 qualified version of their ProASIC3 family of FPGAs. These low-power, single-chip, Flash-based devices are live at power-up and are firm-error immune. Furthermore, these high-performance parts are feature-rich, flexible, and offer the high-temperature support demanded by extreme automotive applications (125°C ambient temperatures and 135°C junction temperatures).
Implemented using the Infineon high-performance CMOS-plus-Flash 130 nm automotive process, these devices feature a thicker oxide layer, which supports higher operating temperatures while reducing leakage. The fact that these FPGAs use pure Flash-based configuration (as opposed to SRAM or Hybrid Flash-SRAM) provides firm-error immunity and means they consume very little power and generate very little heat, which – in turn – enhances their ability to operate in extreme temperature environments.
In addition to supporting industry standards like the Automotive Electronics Council (AEC) Grade 1 qualification, PPAP documentation, and TS16949 Quality Management, Actel's new devices are road-tested and vendor qualified. These parts have already been incorporated into a variety of applications, ranging from a backup vision system (in which the camera, FPGA, and other equipment had to fit into a 1" cube) to next-generation controllers for heavy-duty diesel engines used in tractors and mining equipment.
The ProASIC3 family ranges from 60K to 1M system gates. The 1M gate AEC-Q100 qualified A3P1000 us available now (sub-$20 in quantities of 250K), with the remaining members of the family coming online by the end of 2007 (engineering samples of the A3P060, A3P125, and A3P250 are available now).
"Being a smaller FPGA vendor, Actel has to focus on differentiating itself," says Gartner/Dataquest industry analyst Bryan Lewis, "clearly this is a solid niche for them."
With regard to the FPGA forecast by application market, Gartner/Dataquest has Infotainment and Telematic categories for FPGAs, but it does not currently account for FPGAs in the powertrain and safety arenas. "That's about to change," notes Bryan, "based on this announcement from Actel, we are going to start tracking FPGAs in these new areas."