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  • Writer's pictureMike Entner

Navigating the Circuit: Decoding Processor Technologies in the Automotive Arena

By Michael Entner-Gómez | Digital Transformation Officer | Entner Consulting Group, LLC.

The world of silicon in the automotive space is teeming with an array of terminology and it's evolving daily. To help demystify this jargon, let's break down the processor types, look at some examples of vendors and products, and explore what's on the horizon in this rapidly advancing field. From GPUs enhancing driver-assistance systems to the latest developments in sensor chip technologies, the automotive industry is witnessing a significant transformation driven by chip innovation. We'll delve into the specifics of processor architectures like CISC, RISC, and SoCs, introduce key manufacturers, and highlight the most recent chip advancements reshaping the future of automotive technology.

GPUs (Graphics Processing Units)

GPUs have evolved beyond their initial role in graphics rendering to become key components in automotive systems, especially in areas requiring high-level parallel processing. These processors are crucial in enabling advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous driving technologies, where rapid and efficient processing of large volumes of data, such as images and sensor information, is essential.

  • NVIDIA: Known for their high-performance GPUs, NVIDIA's Drive PX series is specifically designed for automotive applications, particularly for autonomous driving and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS).

  • AMD: AMD Radeon GPUs are used in various applications, including automotive, where high-performance graphics and parallel processing are required.

CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing) Processors

CISC processors, characterized by their comprehensive set of instructions, are adept at handling complex computational tasks with fewer lines of code. This architecture is beneficial in automotive applications that demand high-level computing capabilities, such as infotainment systems and advanced computational modules.

  • Intel: Offers a range of CISC processors, including the Intel Atom and Core series, used in automotive infotainment and advanced computing tasks.

  • AMD: AMD's Ryzen and EPYC series are examples of CISC processors that can be utilized in automotive applications for complex computational tasks.

RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) Processors

RISC processors operate using a simpler set of instructions, leading to higher efficiency and often improved performance with lower power consumption. Their streamlined architecture makes them ideal for embedded systems in vehicles, particularly in applications that require consistent performance and energy efficiency, such as control units and sensor processing.

  • ARM: ARM's Cortex series, especially the Cortex-R and Cortex-M series, are widely used in automotive applications, particularly in MCUs for embedded systems.

  • NXP Semiconductors: Provides a variety of RISC-based MCUs for automotive applications, including the S32 Automotive Processing Platform.

Microprocessors (MPUs)

Microprocessors are the central brains of many automotive systems, offering high performance and flexibility. These processors are capable of handling complex tasks and computations, making them essential in systems ranging from engine management to advanced driver-assistance systems.

  • Texas Instruments: Offers a range of automotive-grade MPUs, including the Sitara series, known for their high performance and integration capabilities.

  • Renesas Electronics: Provides the R-Car series of MPUs, designed specifically for automotive applications like infotainment and ADAS.

Microcontrollers (MCUs)

MCUs are integral to the functioning of modern vehicles. They are designed to perform specific control-oriented tasks and are commonly found in embedded systems. With advancements in technology, multi-core MCUs have emerged, offering enhanced performance for automotive applications that require real-time control and processing.

  • STMicroelectronics: Known for their STM32 series of MCUs, which are widely used in automotive applications for control and sensor processing.

  • Infineon: Offers the AURIX series of MCUs, designed for automotive applications, including safety and control systems.

Systems-on-Chip (SoCs)

Systems-on-Chip represent the integration of various components of a computer or electronic system onto a single chip. In the automotive industry, SoCs streamline the design and operation of complex systems, such as infotainment and navigation, by combining processing power, memory, and other functionalities in a compact form factor.

  • Qualcomm: Offers the Snapdragon series of SoCs, which are used in automotive infotainment systems and telematics.

  • Samsung: Provides Exynos Auto SoCs, designed for infotainment, advanced driving assistance systems, and telematics.

Digital Signal Processors (DSPs)

DSPs are specialized for high-speed numeric calculations and are primarily used in signal processing tasks. In automotive applications, DSPs are vital for audio processing, communications, and advanced sensor data processing, playing a key role in enhancing the vehicle's multimedia and safety features.

  • Texas Instruments: Their range of DSPs, such as the TMS320 series, is used in automotive applications for audio, communications, and sensor processing.

  • Analog Devices: Known for their SHARC DSPs, which are used in automotive applications for audio, voice processing, and advanced sensor fusion.

Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs)

FPGAs are unique in their ability to be programmed after manufacturing, offering customizable solutions for specific automotive needs. These processors are used for a variety of applications, including sensor fusion, image processing, and custom automotive functions, providing flexibility and high-performance computing capabilities.

  • Xilinx: Offers automotive-grade FPGAs, including the Zynq series, which are used for sensor fusion, image processing, and customizable automotive applications.

  • Intel (Altera): Their range of FPGAs, like the Cyclone series, are used in automotive applications for flexible, high-performance computing tasks.

What’s on the Horizon?

Several new types of chips are being developed for the automotive industry, focusing on enhancing vehicle performance, efficiency, and safety. These advancements are transforming the automotive sector by introducing more sophisticated technologies.

Here are some of the key developments:

💠 Power Device Technologies:

  • Technologies like silicon-carbide metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors (SiC MOSFETs), diodes, and high-voltage insulated-gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs) are being developed. These improve the performance of electric vehicle (EV) systems and charging infrastructure. Additionally, multi-tasking, application-specific LSI (system ASICs) controllers are being created to reduce complexity and size while improving the efficiency of automotive systems​​.

💠 Automotive Green Solutions:

  • LED lighting solutions are being developed to reduce energy consumption and extend lamp life. SiC products, including MOSFETs and Schottky barrier diodes, are being used to improve the efficiency and robustness of systems​​.

💠 LSI (ASIC) Devices:

  • There is a focus on developing LSI (ASIC) devices to make control systems simpler and more compact​​.

💠 Battery Management Systems and DC-to-DC Converters

  • Companies like Analog Devices are introducing new chips for the automobile industry, such as LTC6813 and LTC3895, which are used in battery management systems for EVs and high-voltage DC-to-DC converters​​.

💠 Advanced Electronic Systems by NXP Semiconductors:

  • NXP Semiconductors is focusing on designing and developing advanced electronic systems to safeguard vehicles, including in-vehicle networks, microcontrollers (MCUs), processors, radars, and secure car access​​.

💠 Qualcomm C-V2X 9150 Chipset:

  • Qualcomm has developed the C-V2X 9150 chipset, which connects vehicles to everything—other vehicles, pedestrians, roadway infrastructure, and the network. This technology enhances safety and autonomy by providing a higher level of predictability​​.

💠 Systems-on-Chips (SoCs) for Multimedia and Motor Controls:

  • Researchers are working on SoCs that integrate all necessary electronic components on a single chip. These SoCs are used for in-car media, providing powerful solutions for multimedia applications and advanced motor controls in automotive and industrial applications. They are also used in battery and power management, as well as in advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), including features like electronic beam steering for object detection and safety systems like emergency braking and automated parking​​.

💠 Sensor Chips and Technologies:

  • Automotive sensors are becoming increasingly important, with new products like LiDAR, 4D imaging radar, and 8MP CMOS image sensors rapidly being adopted in vehicles. These advancements are driving a new stage of rapid iterative evolution and cost reduction in sensor and chip technologies​​.

💠 Radar Chips:

  • Radar chip technology, especially in the field of 4D radars, is rapidly advancing. Companies like Infineon, NXP, and Calterah Semiconductor are leading in this area. 4D radars are being integrated into mid- and high-end models, including autonomous vehicles​​.

  • Calterah's Andes Radar SoC Family was announced in December 2022, this family enables 4D imaging radar functions and supports L3+ autonomous driving​​.

  • Muye Microelectronics successfully developed 77G Radar Chip in December 2022, and passed the 'ISO-26262 ASL-D functional safety certification' in March 2023​​.

💠 LiDAR Chips:

  • LiDAR chip technology is advancing towards SoC integration, with a focus on reducing costs and improving integration. Companies like Hesai Technology are developing LiDAR SoCs for applications in advanced autonomous driving​​.

  • Hesai Technology has been committed to developing LiDAR chips and started developing LiDAR SoCs since 2018, with multiple generations of chip-based transceivers​​.

  • Demonstrated in early 2023, Mobileye's Next-Generation FMCW LiDAR System-on-Chip (SoC) uses Intel's chip-level silicon photonics process​​.

💠 Vision Sensor Chips:

  • In the area of vision sensor chips, there is a move towards higher pixel and high dynamic range (HDR) products. Automotive camera hardware is evolving, with companies like ON Semiconductor, OmniVision, and Sony leading in this field. The integration of image signal processors (ISPs) into camera image sensors (CIS) or SoCs is also a significant trend​​.

  • OmniVision's 1.3-Megapixel OX01E20 System-on-Chip was announced in January 2023 for automotive 360-degree surround view systems and rear-view cameras​​.

  • Launched in early 2023, Xpeng P7i's camera features an 8MP camera for intelligent driving assistance solutions​​. These developments indicate a strong focus on enhancing the capabilities of automotive systems, particularly in areas such as energy efficiency, safety, and autonomous driving technologies. The integration of advanced sensor technologies and the development of new chip solutions are central to these efforts, showcasing a future where cars are not only vehicles but sophisticated, interconnected systems.

Rapidly Evolving Silicon

As we navigate the rapidly evolving world of automotive processors, it's clear that the pace of innovation is not slowing down. From GPUs enhancing driver-assistance systems to cutting-edge sensor chip technologies, these advancements are rapidly reshaping the automotive landscape. While we've explored a range of processors and their applications, along with the newest developments on the horizon, it's important to recognize that this field is continuously advancing. Staying informed and adaptable is key in this dynamic sector. I encourage enthusiasts, professionals, and learners alike to keep exploring and stay updated on these transformative technologies, as they drive us towards a more advanced and efficient automotive future.

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