One chip, multiple benefits. That’s the claim made by U.S. semiconductor company Qualcomm Technologies Inc. about its new, scalable system-on-a-chip (SoC) product family, called Snapdragon Ride Flex. Unveiled at CES2023 and due to enter the market in early 2024, Snapdragon Flex is the auto industry's first scalable family of SoCs that can run a digital cockpit and ADAS features simultaneously, according to the company.
Snapdragon Ride Flex is the latest member of the Snapdragon SoC family. Qualcomm's first-generation Ride Platforms are currently available in commercialized vehicles. Newer generations, which include the Ride Vision stack that can handle ADAS applications, are being tested by Tier 1s. They are expected to arrive on MY2025 vehicles from various OEMs, according to Qualcomm.
The Flex SoCs now in testing offer between 16 and 24 TOPS (trillion, or Terra Operations Per Second) and are meant for entry- and mid-level cockpits and SAE Levels 1 and 2 safety features. Next-generation chips for higher-end cockpits and automated driving between the so-called L2+ and L4-5 — the latter featuring up to 2000 TOPS with two Flex SoCs and two AI Accelerators – are in the design phase.
Enabling next-gen vehicle architectures
For now, the Ride Flex SoC will be pre-integrated with the Snapdragon Ride Vision stack and can run both computer vision and AI in a mixed-criticality environment, Qualcomm said. The Flex SoC has a dedicated Automotive Safety Integrity Level D (ASIL-D) safety island along with hardware that supports isolation and freedom from interference. The software side can have multiple operating systems running concurrently, including isolated virtual machines. Flex SoC’s selling point is the ability to handle ADAS functions, digital clusters, infotainment systems, driver monitoring or park-assist systems on its own.
The aim is to allow OEMs and Tier 1s to "realize a unified central-compute and software-defined vehicle architecture," the company said. Putting so much power into one component will allow automakers to develop future platforms in new ways, with the silicon at the forefront, said Qualcomm senior VP and general manager for automotive, Nakul Duggal.
"We are developing the platform with an approach where the silicon, the underlying software, and things higher up the stack are part and parcel of the overall platform," he said. "They have to be repeatable. They have to be something that you can rely on, regardless of whether you run in Flex — so, ADAS and infotainment side by side — or you're only doing ADAS or are only doing infotainment. That predictably, that reliability is very important."
Integrating Qualcomm's chips deeper into more and more electric vehicles is a key strategy for the company. For example, tighter integration between Qualcomm and its OEM partners could allow an EV with the new Flex SoC to cool the chip using the same thermal management system that cools the battery. Improved cooling means the chip can be pushed harder, even if it then runs at a higher temperature for a more sustained period of time. Qualcomm's Snapdragon digital chassis will also be the technological backbone of the upcoming joint Sony-Honda Afeela model, an EV that is expected to arrive sometime in 2025.
Another of Qualcomm's deep integrations is happening at Volkswagen. In spring 2022, Qualcomm and VW announced a global partnership to form Cariad, a new company that would act as VW's software and technology developer. The deal means Qualcomm's chips will eventually be running in millions of future VW EVs, and both sides appear eager to tout the benefits of the new system over VW's current ADAS chip supplier, MobilEye. For at least the past six months, the Cariad team has been handling the hardware development, hardening the underlying Ride platforms for both ADAS-only and Flex SoC capabilities.
The main highlights of the Flex SoC — that it can scale and be flexible — is what drove VW to partner with Qualcomm in the first place, said Cariad CEO Dirk Hilgenberg at CES. The two companies are jointly developing a new unified architecture that VW is testing on multiple EV platforms, highlighting Qualcomm's role as both supplier and partner.
"We are investigating both MEB and PPE [VW’s mainstream and premium EV platforms, respectively] at the moment, and where there are opportunities in there," Hilgenberg said at CES. "It's too early to judge, but we are pursuing that with the new alignment we have done in our cycle plans."
Software-defined is here
VW isn't saying when its various brands will start introducing Snapdragon Drive SoCs in its vehicles, but the unifying architecture is targeting L3 and L4 capabilities. The first Snapdragon Drive SoCs will arrive first in VW's volume models. Due to timing issues, VW will then "evolutionarily upgrade" its premium models second before transitioning to a unified architecture.
All of these technological advances mean that the auto industry is at a true turning point, Duggal said. Qualcomm's CES displays and announcements were based on things that are available now or coming soon. Once OEMs integrate scalable chips into their vehicles, each model will improve on the older ones, but the underlying focus can shift to other things.
"The software-defined vehicle, as is being talked about in the media and in automotive circles, is actually here. It is getting deployed," Duggal said. "We are now at a point where we have to start to talk about how you build services. How do you monetize? How do you create new revenue pools on top of the platform that is the car, as opposed to, let's keep building the platform again and again."Continue reading »