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Kontron’s processing boards are ruggedized to operate in harsh environments for several years. (Kontron)

Kontron’s embedded boards help drive autonomy forward

The embedded-system supplier provides high-end knowledge for image processing, analysis with fewer control modules.

Transportation technologies driven by autonomy are making partnerships an increasingly important part of vehicle-development strategies. That has created significant openings for design and development companies like Kontron, which is leveraging its expertise in high-end embedded systems to expand its position in commercial vehicles.

The board and system supplier is working with a number of ecosystems created to address the many issues related to autonomy. Products for rail, mining and off-highway have been part of the portfolio for Kontron, which also designs advanced technology for industrial, avionics, medical and military customers. There is a growing connection between vehicle systems and high-end embedded digital electronics, driven in part by the change from several distributed control units to fewer centralized controllers.

“First tiers and second tiers came to us so we could help them build more powerful systems,” said Val Scinteie, senior transportation manager at Kontron America. “There’s a trend in automotive and commercial vehicles to go from 50-60 microcomputers to 10-or-so computers first, then down to five or six and maybe down to two. It won’t go lower because of safety and security concerns.”

Military and commercial converge
The need for ruggedness and long lifetimes in commercial vehicles is similar to the requirements of avionics and military systems that must operate in less-than-ideal conditions like high elevation and extreme temperature variations. Military systems must operate for decades in these harsh environments, something that is also necessary in commercial vehicles.

“In defense, we’ve had many years of making ruggedized equipment,” said Mark Littlefield, vertical product manager at Kontron America. “All the bad things that can happen in military products can happen in vehicles in the field.” The need for ecosystems is growing, driven both by the complexity of autonomous driving and fragmentation in the development world. Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers and OEMs used to lead most design programs. But driverless vehicle programs are also being spearheaded by robo-taxi companies and digital integrators like Google and Baidu.

All participants in these partnerships can broaden their skill sets. Kontron brings experience in small, lightweight systems that don’t consume much power. Scinteie noted that Kontron engineers are gaining knowledge in areas like ISO26262 and automotive-grade technologies. Artificial intelligence (AI) is another area where everyone’s learning. Here again, a close synergy between military products and vehicle systems is found. In drones and some ground vehicles, systems are collecting information from a range of sensors, fusing this data into a holistic view of the vehicle’s surroundings.

AI is becoming a popular tool for analyzing sensor inputs, determining what objects are, and deciding whether actions need to be taken. Deep learning is the primary branch of AI used in autonomous vehicles, Scinteie noted. From the hardware side, processing power is a primary requirement for system managers, followed closely by cost as OEMs consider volume production. “They’re looking at adding GPUs and accelerators,” Scinteie said. “The focus needs to be on low cost, making them more affordable. FPGAs work, but their biggest problem is cost. FPGAs are an expensive solution.”

Keeping apace of rapid advances
Pricing is not always a primary concern given the current stage of autonomous programs; many are still years away from production volumes. Instead of worrying about component prices, one of the major challenges for engineering teams is staying abreast of the rapid advances in AI and software. AI technologies are advancing at a breakneck pace, challenging even companies like Kontron that focus on developing high-performance boards and systems in fields that demand a lot of customization.

This requires design teams to remain nimble in order to complete projects that often evolve as the program moves forward. In the current state of prototype development for autonomous commercial vehicles, designing in state-of-the art technology is a big challenge. Embedded system suppliers like Kontron are more used to creating low-volume systems than most automotive companies.

“Once a company makes a decision to start a project, things reach end of life before they get close to completion. Some specialized ASICs are only on the market for a year; you can’t get a board designed and into production in a vehicle in a year,” Littlefield said. “That’s a challenge for us, and we’re used to that. For Tier 1s who are used to building hundreds of thousands of units, it has to be very confusing. We have to work with suppliers to create a solution that works.”

Kontron’s military and avionics programs have similar problems since it can take years for defense industry planners to go from initial concept to production for fairly low volumes of end vehicles. Meeting this demand requires a lot of work with a range of component suppliers. That meshes well with the requirements for centralized controllers in autonomous vehicles. The synergies between ruggedized embedded computers and the controls used in autonomous vehicles create an open marketplace for suppliers from various embedded-system environments.

“We’re plowing along in the marketplace, trying to help many players throughout the value chain,” Scinteie said. “We’re making a lot of white label computers that mix devices from Intel, Nvidia and other microcontroller suppliers. They’re not branded as Kontron products; they’re produced by first-tier suppliers and OEMs.” Many of those products can be found on test vehicles that are now on roads and test tracks. Kontron is working in automotive fields including with Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) providers, gaining knowledge that can be brought to bear on commercial vehicles.

Littlefield noted that the opposite is also true. Military systems will be able to utilize technologies created by the many commercial firms pouring money into cars, trucks and other vehicles. While many military systems use complex technologies to meet specialized needs, many military designs use a number of technologies created for gaming, transportation and other areas, he said.

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