PARIS — Broadcom Corp. is making an aggressive wireless entry into the automotive market by rolling out what the company calls the industry's first automotive-quality 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth low energy (LE) combo chip.
While select automotive brands (such as Ford, BMW, and Chrysler) have already introduced models featuring WiFi capability using other variants of 802.11 protocols, this is their first look at Gigabit WiFi chips based on the 802.11ac standard -- whose ink is barely dry at the IEEE's working group.
Describing a very long product development cycle for cars, Luca De Ambroggi, senior analyst for automotive components and devices at IHS, calls 802.11ac "a perfect match" for automakers.
But he adds that Broadcom's introduction of the Gigabit WiFi chip so soon to the automotive market was "unexpected." While acknowledging that the move surprised him, De Ambroggi told us he expects other chip vendors such as Qualcomm and Marvell Technology to follow suit.
With its chips sampling today, Tom Ramsthaler, Broadcom's senior director responsible for product marketing of wireless connectivity, predicts that the first cars with 802.11ac will ship in 2018.
Why a car needs Gigabit WiFi
Driving the Gigabit WiFi demand for automotive is both the rampant use of higher bandwidth multimedia inside cars and the growing number of mobile devices consumers are bringing into their cars.
Broadcom, leveraging its integration expertise and its leading position in the wireless connectivity chip market, is rising to the occasion by integrating 802.11ac, MAC, PHY, RF, Bluetooth LE, and software on a single chip. The new combo chip allows "uncongested 5GHz video to coexist concurrently with 2.4 GHz Bluetooth hands-free operation," according to Broadcom. The new device also supports WiFi Direct and WiFi certified Miracast.
When a driver, for example, wants to stream an HD movie from his mobile device to rear-seat displays to entertain his kids, Miracast will facilitate multiple in-car displays.
Broadcom's Ramsthaler notes, "Infotainment is becoming a key differentiator for carmakers."
Further, IHS analyst De Ambroggi adds that carmakers are now striving to keep up with the newest wireless technologies being integrated into mobile handsets and tablets.
In other words, asking if cars really need 802.11ac, which offers not only gigabit bandwidth but also a long range (probably more than a car needs), is the wrong question. Carmakers today are more worried about how their future cars can respond to the needs of new mobile devices that consumers will surely use inside their cars.
Bluetooth LE: extra cost?
De Ambroggi is skeptical, however, about the integration of Bluetooth LE inside the combo chip, because it might seem "too futuristic" for some carmakers.