System on Chip on Wheels
The automotive industry has a rich history of demanding innovative processor solutions to optimize the power and performance while reducing weight, area and cost. In fact, probably the first system on chip (SoC) solution in the processor market was the microcontroller MCU, and the automotive industry consumed approximately a third of all MCUs shipped in 2013, maintaining the largest share of the microcontroller market. Today, however, there is a new SoC on the road, and most of us already carry one around with us on a daily basis. It is the multimedia or applications processor, and it is the brains behind many smartphones and tablets.
That was then,
The most successful MCU manufacturers have developed a rich ecosystem of support for the automotive OEMs and the Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers of automotive components. They have developed a deep understanding of the critical requirements of providing semiconductor solutions for automotive such as AEC-Q100 for quality, ISO26262 for functional safety and many more specific solutions. They have cultivated a relationship of long term trust within an industry that often takes 5 to 10 years from design concept to production.
In 2003, microcontrollers represented over three fourths of the $3B automotive processor market with high performance microprocessors (MPU), graphics processors (GPU) and digital signal processors (DSP) splitting up the rest. When you understand that the average MCU is typically a fraction of the average selling price of an MPU or GPU, this figure is even more outstanding. In 2014, MCUs still dominate the automotive market, however it is only two thirds of the roughly $7.5B automotive processor market. This market share is likely to drop even further in the short term forecast as multimedia SoCs garner more consumer demand and consequently OEM acceptance.
This is now
Today, consumer expectations, of instant gratification, advanced human machine interfaces and constant connectivity through the internet of things, are changing the automotive competitive landscape. Rich 3D graphics interfaces and mobile technologies wireless connectivity solutions are the domain of smartphones, but they are fast becoming the expectation for vehicle infotainment systems today. Electromechanical dials are giving way to digital instrument clusters. Radios have evolved from simple AM/FM tuners to software defined radios with multiple digital terrestrial tuner technologies or satellite radios. Center consoles, or head units with embedded vehicle navigation, touch screen displays and even internet connectivity are replacing knobs and buttons. Many vehicles are offering rear seat entertainments systems with HD video and even streaming content.
For these systems, the current embodiment of the microcontroller is not capable of providing the intense graphics, the multiple system integration, the advanced human machine interfaces and ecosystem compatibility that consumers have come to demand. OEMs are more and more compelled into looking to multimedia SoCs to solve this problem. This creates its own problems; with faster design cycles and shorter verification and validation cycles than typical of automotive processors there is expected to be future hurdles in marrying these two technology industries. The average vehicle component design can be 2 years plus compared to six to nine months for a handset.
The competition heats up
For companies like Intel, NVidia, Qualcomm, and potentially many other multimedia SoC providers, this means SoCs developed for wireless applications are now gaining a foothold in the automotive industry. But the automotive leaders are not standing by idly and allowing their market share to be stolen out from under them. Renesas’ R-Car, Freescale’s i.MX 6, Texas Instruments’ Jacinto 6, NXP SAF360x series, STMicroelectronics’ STiH416, and many other solutions are all SoCs that prove that the automotive vendors do not necessarily need to go outside their traditional service providers for impressive system-on-chip graphics and even connectivity solutions.
From here the market continues to get even more exciting and the competitive landscape grows further embroiled as heads up displays, gesture and natural voice recognition, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure continue to provide greater demand for SoCs in vehicle infotainment over the next decade. Advances in smartphone interfaces including Miracast, MirrorLink or even Apple’s recently announced CarPlay all lead to a driving experience in which the car is becoming more of an extension of ourselves and our always connected human machine experience. Whether the application is launched from the smartphone or the car is still a matter of competing technologies, but there is no doubt that a SoC is providing at least some level of advanced multimedia display.
The future of infotainment processors
In the end, the demand for automotive infotainment MCUs will still continue to thrive providing such things as Bluetooth connectivity, USB interfaces, basic instrument cluster displays, and even a wide array of sensor hubs to assist in predicting the driver’s needs, but there is no doubt that the car of today and well into the future is going to rely more heavily on a new kind of system on chip on wheels. For more information on the competitive landscape and the future of infotainment processors, see the Automotive Infotainment Processors Report, 2014.