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Audi uses a number of sensors in its zFAS piloted driving system on the new A8, so FPGAs are used to make it easier to configure connections.

Reconfigurable chip usage ramps up as ADAS advances

Reconfigurable processors have seen growing use in rapidly-changing infotainment systems and are expanding into advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). The role of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and other customizable processors is expected to develop further with the emergence of autonomy, where the vagaries of artificial intelligence makes customization more important.

As vehicle OEMs make software more of a differentiator, devices that make it simple to alter hardware to match changes in algorithms and software are becoming more practical. In a growing number of systems, changes in software can improve performance significantly. Sometimes, performance can be further improved by altering the programming structure.

“Algorithms change rapidly, researchers can find 2% better performance, but they can’t do that if they can’t change the hardware,” said Steve Roddy, Senior Group Director, Tensilica Marketing at Cadence. “They need a programmable solution that has the computing horsepower they need.”

The 2018 Audi A8’s zFAS piloted driving highlights the growing role of reconfigurable hardware, as well as the demanding computing requirements of electronic controls that make life or death driving decisions. An Intel Cyclone V FPGA that has dual ARM cores augments Audi’s control module, which also employs an Nvidia GPU, a Mobileye vision processor and a basic CPU.

“Audi is our first adoption in an ADAS system with a heterogenous approach,” said Michael Hendricks, Senior Director of Intel’s Automotive Programable Solutions Group. “ADAS and autonomy are moving so rapidly, there’s a major breakthrough every three months. It’s difficult for an ASIC developer to hit the bulls eye. FPGAs bring a lot of assets and give developers more flexibility to adapt.”

Expectations of strong growth is attracting other FPGA suppliers like Xilinx. Reconfigurable devices make it simpler for design teams to alter hardware late in development cycles while also letting them configure control modules that can be used in various models. For example, some ADAS systems may have more sensors than others.

“With an FPGA, you can tailor the I/O, setting the right number of LVDS and CAN connections, for example,” Hendricks noted. “FPGAs offer a sea of logic gates so both hardware and software can be programmed so algorithms and hardware are optimized.”

Customizable hardware was once used primarily for development, with ASICs or specialized processors used in production. But that limitation faded as radios transformed into infotainment systems. These devices are seeing more widespread usage in infotainment as users demand more features and functions. In large vehicles, customized processors will help foster communications between humans.

“In a big SUV, smart microphones in the headliner can figure out who’s talking and send their voice through the speakers,” Roddy said. “These chips let them layer in this level of functionality.”

Safety and infotainment are primary drivers behind expectations of continued solid growth for automotive ICs. IHS Markit expects the automotive semiconductor market from $32.1 billion in 2016 to $34.4 billion in 2017, slightly outpacing 7% growth from 2015 to 2016.

Long-term expectations are fueling major changes in the automotive chip world. Intel acquired Altera, which makes FPGAs. It also acquired Mobileye, maker of vision processors. Qualcomm is in the process of acquiring NXP Semiconductors, which last year purchased Freescale Semiconductors. Citigroup predicts that Nvidia, once a small player in vehicles, will hit $1 billion in automotive in fiscal 2018 after seeing revenue rise 52% in fiscal 2017.

Though newer companies like Nvidia and Cadence are focusing on automotive applications, traditional suppliers have maintained the bulk of the market. NXP, Infineon, Renesas, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments were the largest automotive suppliers in 2016, according to Semicast Research. Robert Bosch, On Semiconductor, Microchip Technology, Toshiba and Rohm Semiconductor rounded out the top 10.

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