Qualcomm readying next-gen auto platforms
Qualcomm looks to bring its years of experience in cellular/smartphone communication systems to bear on founding architectures that will enable the next-generation of connected and autonomous vehicles. (Qualcomm)

Qualcomm ready with next-gen mobility connectivity hardware

A V2X network will enable the next generation of connected and autonomous vehicles. Qualcomm aims its cellular systems to be the backbone of that network.

If you start doing the modem math on the “everything-connected-to-everything” world swiftly headed our way, you could be in a worse position than the San Diego-based comm concern Qualcomm. With connectivity a huge aspect of a safer and more functional mobility future, Qualcomm seems primed to continue as a top supplier of the hardware and engineering that will form the V2X architecture.

On a recent media tour of Detroit, Qualcomm invited us for coffee and an enlightening chat in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood with Maged Zaki, an electrical engineer and Qualcomm’s director of technical marketing, to discuss its role in the systems that will drive the future of connected mobility. In terms of infotainment, system on a chip (SOC) and connectivity sets, Qualcomm already works with all the major automotive OEMs. It was a key player over several decades in developing systems (such as CDMA) that enabled the smartphone revolution, experience likely to prove crucial for the data onslaught set to roil the automotive space.

“We are renowned for getting high performance at low power and thermal, which is important for a smartphone, but very important for cars too, especially now when you need more computing power for infotainment and autonomy,” Zaki (below) explained over a cup at Astro Coffee. “If you have an EV, you cannot put too big of an SOC system, as that will decrease your range. You are limited in power and, more importantly, in thermal, in the heat dissipation. That's why you need to design things in a more power-efficient way.”

5G: Built for data
With regulations in most major markets about vehicle-to-everything (V2X) networks still undecided (Wi-Fi-esque digital short range communication (DSRC) vs. cellular), you can appreciate that a company with so much history and experience on the smartphone front might have a particular opinion about what technology should anchor the system. “We have both products, but we are not completely agnostic about it because we think 5G – and the technology we call C-V2X [cellular vehicle-to-everything communication] – is the way to go for many reasons,” Zaki stated.

“From a technology standpoint, it's superior. From a business standpoint, it makes more sense economically on the infrastructure and for car OEMs. And 5G is also part of the whole fabric that we are building for communication,” Zaki continued. “What is so different about 5G is what we want to achieve with this generation of wireless. With 3G, early on we were envisioning, ‘Yeah, maybe we should use that for data.’ This is the time when people were not using even emails on phones, so it wasn't big on 3G. With 4G, we started to see lots of data use for Facebook, videos and everything.

“Towards the end of 4G, we started to say, ‘Okay. We want to do things a little bit differently.’ We don't want to just target smartphones, we want 4G and 5G to be the fabric for all devices. Whether it's your car, your smartphone, your thermostat at home, everything. We have a discrete product that OEMs can put it in cars, but we have integrated the same technology in our main [4G/5G] modem. You don't have to have a communication module which is 4G/5G to connect you to the cloud, and another module to connect cars to each other. So when Ford or GM or FCA comes and buys that, they don't have to buy two modules.”

Tower-free safety
For Zaki, the sequestering of functions makes DSRC a less appealing option. “This has always been the problem with DSRC, because the business model was not there for it. From a car OEMs' standpoint, this is added cost to the car. With C-V2X, it's more a feature of the modem instead of a completely new system,” Zaki explained, noting the oft discussed safety aspects. “We want to enable safety and we want to make that free. ‘Free’ meaning I don't have to have a subscription to Verizon.

“This [C-V2X ] technology is exactly like DSRC. You don't need towers. Cars talk to each other. Even if there is no coverage, like I'm driving up to Yosemite Park, for example, V2X is vehicle to everything. You want your car to talk to [other] cars, you want your car to talk to the infrastructure, like traffic lights. The communication between the car and the traffic light happens in a direct way. It doesn't need the tower.”

Qualcomm’s discrete C-V2X model is already available to OEMs, with integrated C-V2X SOC modems available by Q1/2020. Further safety gains could come as related SOCs make their way into smartphones. “You can use this technology for pedestrians,” Zaki said. “In the future, you can envision putting the chipset in the smartphone. If you are driving and I am crossing the street, my smartphone is going to tell everyone I'm crossing the street now. We call that V2P.”

Virtualized capabilities
As 5G begins to proliferate and the public gets used to blazing mobile speeds, and autonomous features begin to create more free time, the need for data use in the car is about to skyrocket. “I want to have my navigation, infotainment stuff and all the visuals for the backseats for the kids or gaming,” Zaki noted. “We have only one 4G/5G modem in the car, but it's divided in a way that it does the best job for what it needs to do for everyone. That requires virtualization for how we connect each connection.

“There is one connection going from the modem to GM or Ford – they have their own subscription that I'm not aware of. There is one connection that is going from my car to your car through C-V2X. There is one connection going to the cloud for my services as a driver or as a user. Everything works concurrently. People [think] if the kids are watching YouTube in the back and I am about to have an accident, it's not going to work because it's going to be busy.

“Every function is virtualized in a way that, from a technical standpoint, it's like its own small radio with antennas, and it has its own messaging and security and privacy,” Zaki explained. “Privacy, for example, is very important, but when you drive close to me, I don't get your identity, but I know that your car is close to me.”

Global SKUs for scale, tiered offerings
Integrated, flexible componentry is music to the ears of OEM purchasing divisions, and the expanded functionality and compatibility of these integrated modules can help OEMs deploy across global markets. “It gets complicated because each region will have its own spectrum from an RF standpoint. 5G makes it more complicated because you have millimeter-wave and sub-6 [Ghz] combinations you have to support,” Zaki explained, “so it works here with Verizon, but also with Vodafone and NTT Docomo in Japan, and China Telecom. They have one SKU for this modem that can work in every single region.”

Qualcomm is not just modems, and along with other chipset suppliers such as Nvidia, is expanding its computing offerings throughout the vehicle. It announced the third generation of its digital cockpit at CES in January, with scale being a key selling point. “Think about a car OEM like VW, for example,” Zaki offered. “They have VW, Audi, Porsche. Maybe the hardware would be different, but whatever their engineers write for their camera system, for example, would work on all of these. The scale story is very important for us.”

According to Zaki, the product offerings from Qualcomm are the result of the company’s extensive technology portfolio, its ability to make tech work efficiently in a product, and an unmatched skillset from the billions of smartphone chipsets it’s engineered. This global experience will likely equate to a growing role in the automotive space.

“We are able to serve different tiers. To do that, you have to be able to satisfy different needs of the market. Say you have a small smartphone OEM in China that have a very small shipment that requires a less capable chipset,” Zaki said, “and you have someone like Samsung or Apple that has to deliver the latest technology. They will get the most R&D, which they cannot get from other chipset suppliers.”

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