In ten years’ time, the computing power of cars will have increased tenfold!

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For the father of Qualcomm’s automotive division Nakul Duggal, the number of chips in cars and their power will increase tenfold in the next decade. An increase in the power required for the growing complexity of the computational tasks that the vehicles of the future will have to solve.



The quest for autonomous driving brings with it a huge challenge: turning our vehicles into real little supercomputers. This transformation from the “dumb” car to the “intelligent” car is whetting the appetite of semiconductor world champions, ready to sell their chips to a market whose demand for computing power is exploding. Among the companies that want to conquer the lion’s share, there is the American Qualcomm. Known for being number 1 in the world in mobile processors and other modems, the American has expanded his ambitions to the connected and autonomous car. Thanks to its know-how in telecom on the one hand and in the design of smartphone chips on the other.

Within ten years, the most advanced car models will have a combined computing power of their chips ranging from x7 to x10 compared to today’s best vehicles. predicts Nakul Duggal, vice president and head of Qualcomm’s automotive division. A power gain that is necessary with the evolution of the use. ” There used to be a reversing camera in your car. And its only use was to be called by an application that projects the video stream on the central screen. But now several cameras, sometimes different ones, are controlled. In addition to simple viewing, cameras are also used for control, detection and security purposes. continues Mr. Duggal. ” The need for computing power is of a completely different order! »

Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm

Nakul Duggal, the grand chief of the automotive division of Qualcomm Technologies. © Adrian BRANCO / 01net.com

Because the number of sensors, cameras and others is explosive in our vehicles – electronics should represent 20% of the cost of cars by 2030 – and the use becomes more and more complex, it is therefore necessary to design processors that are always more powerful and perfected. But unlike the world of smartphones where new chips appear every year at perfectly regular intervals, the design of the chips in our cars is quite another matter.

Chips extremely difficult to design


© Adrian BRANCO / 01net.com

If Moore’s “law” predicts that the performance of computer chips will double every eighteen months, that of car chips cannot be that fast in the next decade. It slows down on the one hand due to the increasing difficulty of reducing the size of the circuits. An evil that will affect all advanced chips. But it is also the nature of car platforms, where safety (here understanding of platform stability) is more important than anything else, that limits brute force scale-up. It also implies adapted developments… and therefore slower.

Read also: How Semiconductors Will Soon Make Up 20% Of The Price Of Your Car… Hopefully (September 2021)​

Designing a chip for a car is extremely more difficult than for a telephone says Nakul Duggal. This industry veteran – he joined Qualcomm in 1995! – explain that” not only are the simultaneous calculations more numerous, but in addition, the usage scenarios are more varied, because there are so many parameters to consider and calculate. In addition, automatic processors have a much longer lifespan. rock and roll than our phone chips. ” The natural power requirement of the car ensures that chips operate at a higher frequency than, for example, in your smartphone or PC “, explains Nakul Duggal. ” Between the calculation and the outdoor heat, they can sometimes operate at more than 105°C “, he continues.” The processors must operate at all times without the slightest interruption or failure. “. The chips must therefore be hyper-resistant and error-free. And this is where industrial know-how helps.

The contribution of smartphones is not what we think


In addition to the chip itself, Snapdragon Flex also includes the telecommunication part, the connectors or the software elements (SDK, etc.). © Adrian BRANCO / 01net.com

At first glance, you might think that car chips mainly benefit from a variation of different smartphone technologies – CPU, GPU, NPU, etc. This claim is partly false. ” We don’t fix the same technology blocks that smartphones do refutes Mr. Duggal. ” For example, we don’t integrate a phone GPU into the other chips. The different IP blocks (CPUs, GPUs, NPUs, ISPs, etc.) are now being developed taking into account from the very beginning of their design the different variations that we will need. For example, our NPU Hexagon has been designed from the ground up to suit different applications. On mobile, its power is used for text prediction or photo enhancement. But in the car, for example, it is used to predict the movements of vehicles. This should be taken into account from the start so that the functions are best suited for later use. »

Samsung Ambarella 5nm

Qualcomm is not alone in producing 5nm chips for cars: Samsung recently announced that it is producing chips of the same fineness for the American company Ambarella.

This common development of the different “pieces” of the chip thus runs across all of Qualcomm’s chip development units (smartphones, routers, PCs, cars, etc.) and turns out to be more horizontal in places than what we can read. . However, smartphone chips are a crucial asset for their car brother: “ Qualcomm ships about 100 million chips per quarter, most of them for smartphones, so in the nodes of production (the finesse of engraving, ndr) the most recent. Thanks to these huge volumes, we were able to build production models to achieve good yields, identify and qualify problems and errors nodes the most recent “. An industry force that allows Qualcomm to use state-of-the-art engravings for its new Snapdragon Flex automotive platform.

State-of-the-art engraving finesse and concrete design

Qualcomm Snapdragon Flex platform

Qualcomm is counting on its automotive know-how — it’s No. 1 in GPS chips, Wi-Fi Bluetooth, and even network communications systems — to establish its dominance in the segment. The contribution of its smartphone division comes both from the developed logic blocks and from the industrial know-how in the production of advanced chips. © Adrian BRANCO / 01net.com

In addition to manufacturing costs, every electronic chip must balance three physical factors called PPA: energy, power (Power), performance (P), and area used (Area). ” With a chip engraved in 28nm it is impossible for us to achieve the same power level as with current chips in 5nm says Duggal. “Ia chip would be too big and get too hot “. So there is no other option than to reduce the size of the chips. But isn’t the fineness of the circuits a source of problems as we often read?

Not really. As I said, on the one hand, our very high chip production volume allows us to perfectly predict the final quality. But beyond that, everything in autoprocessors is designed for resistance and safety. How the logical elements are arranged (IP in the jargon), from the nature of the logic cells to the manufacturing processes, everything is validated and qualified to specifically meet the constraints of the automotive industry “. This resistance, both physical and logical, allows Qualcomm to create an all-in-one chip with Snapdragon Flex. When asked about the risk of losing the redundancy of the multiple chips that today power the driver assistance, the ABS, manage the navigation system, etc. he replies that ” this is also taken into account. Both from a hardware and software perspective “.

Read also: Mobileye introduces EyeQ Ultra, the chip that promises true level 4 autonomous driving in 2025 (January 2022)​

This confidence in the performance and robustness of his solution, Mr. Duggal, it contributed to the platform’s hoped-for success. When asked who is Qualcomm’s biggest competitor in complete car platforms: Nvidia? Intel? – Mr. Duggal claims that “nWe don’t really have one. We obviously have good competitors in certain areas, such as the very good Mobileye solution you mentioned. But our network knowledge combined with our ability to rapidly design all-in-one chips is difficult DNA to replicate. The future will tell if Qualcomm will tempt an auto industry now doomed to digitize all elements of its vehicles. These will soon be more running computers than ‘smart cars’.
 
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