With 200 to 300 microcontrollers and microprocessors in the typical automobile, cars are already pretty smart. And Google’s and Tesla’s continued development, as well as auto manufacturers’ R&D investments in preparation of autonomous cars, indicate cars are about to get much smarter.
That increased intelligence means vehicles will have more silicon devices that are more integrated, with more densely packed circuitry. Functional modules, such as control systems, infotainment, and autonomous steering and braking, multiply the number of chips per car that semiconductor manufacturers can sell into each car.
To fill the gap between the connectivity capabilities of today’s cars and the complex connectivity in next-generation cars, Qualcomm today announced its Connected Car Reference Platform intended for the car industry to use to build prototypes of the next-generation connected car. Every category from economy to luxury car will be much smarter than the connected luxury car of today, creating a big opportunity for Qualcomm to supply semiconductors to automakers and suppliers.
Connected cars require faster, more-complex connectivity
Connectivity becomes more complex as infotainment experiences become richer and cars become semi-autonomous cars like the Tesla S or fully autonomous like Google’s vehicle. Frank Fitzek, chief of Germany’s 5G Lab, explained to me in February how autonomous cars will need ultra-low-latency, fast 5G network connectivity.
Connected car network speeds will have to get faster because consumer expectations for connectivity in the autonomous era will be the same in a car as at home. Passengers will connect mobile devices with one another and infotainment systems to collaboratively work, play games, cast streamed music and video to car stereos and displays, as well as communicate with the world beyond the car interior.
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If this sounds futuristic, go rent or borrow a 2016 model luxury car from Audi, Honda, or Mercedes or a Tesla S and you will experience excellent connectivity and smartphone integration. Connectivity and options in the next generation will be substantially better.
Autonomous steering and collision avoidance features were not announced. Onboard specialized processors, in addition to the capabilities announced today, will be necessary for autonomous driving. It’s not difficult to imagine that Qualcomm will apply its machine learning SDK, announced just a few weeks ago, and the Snapdragon 820 processor to meet those needs.
Collision avoidance, though, requires a lot of communications with onboard car sensors and cameras—and with a local cloud of Wi-Fi and VX2. VX2, sometimes referred to as vehicle-to-everything, incorporates V2I (Vehicle to Infrastructure), V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle), V2P (Vehicle to Pedestrian), V2D (Vehicle to Device) and V2G (Vehicle to Grid). Much of the collision avoidance systems will operate using a local cloud, but safely coordinating cars in heavy traffic travelling at 70 mph or on the Autobahn at 120 mph will require ultra-low latency, fast 5G.
Features of the Connected Car Reference Platform
Qualcomm described the following features of the Connected Car Reference Platform in its release:
- Scalability: Using a common framework that scales from a basic telematics control unit (TCU) up to a highly integrated wireless gateway, connecting multiple electronic control units (ECUs) within the car and supporting critical functions, such as over-the-air software upgrades and data collection and analytics.
- Future-proofing: Allowing the vehicle’s connectivity hardware and software to be upgraded through its life cycle, providing automakers with a migration path from Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) to hybrid/cellular V2X and from 4G LTE to 5G.
- Wireless coexistence: Managing concurrent operation of multiple wireless technologies using the same spectrum frequencies, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy.
- OEM and third-party applications support: Providing a secure framework for the development and execution of custom applications.
There are a few interesting points about those features. Qualcomm is attempting to solve a difficult problem for automakers: over-the-air software updates. Updating software on a mission-critical system such as an autonomous car is a much harder problem than updating a smartphone because it has to be completely secure and work every time without reducing safety. But Qualcomm has to solve this problem anyway to accelerate shipments not only to the car market but to the IoT market, where it hopes to sell tens of billions of chips.
Keeping up with connectivity improvements
One of the inconsistencies between building cars and building smartphones is the average car has a 12-year useful life, and a smartphone has just a couple of years. Smartphone connectivity improves with each design iteration, posing the problem that its network speeds will almost always be faster than what is installed in the car. Unless the car network is future-proofed, consumers will rely on their phone’s network rather than the car’s. Qualcomm said there will be a migration from older networks to newer, perhaps offering an upgrade to car network connectivity every two years to match the improvements in smartphones.
Qualcomm is approaching a unified communications system to address infotainment, navigation, autonomous steering and braking, and control systems connected to the control area network (CAN). Autonomous steering and braking, navigation, and control systems must be connected, but automakers have resisted combining the CAN bus with infotainment systems because it increases the attack surface that could be exploited by a criminal hacker. Qualcomm claims their design is secure, but it can expect to be asked by safety engineers to prove it.
Qualcomm says it expects to ship the Connected Car Reference Platform to automakers, tier 1 auto suppliers and developers late this year.