CES: chip makers up to speed on cars of the future

Posted January 5, 2023, 4:37 p.m

At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, automakers and chipmakers set up booths nearby. A sign of the times. The former, such as Nvidia, Qualcomm, Mobileye (Intel), need the latter to catch up with Tesla, the pioneer of smart cars controlled by a central computer. Conversely, the latter see the automobile as a major growth driver.

For example, ARM announced that its turnover in the automotive sector has doubled since 2020. For its part, Nvidia reported an 80% increase in revenue from autonomous vehicles in the last quarter and is forecasting $11 billion in revenue over the next six years. years from this segment.

According to S&P Global, the automotive semiconductor market will grow from $67 billion (2022) to $129 billion (2028). This market, which includes processors for autonomous and connected vehicles as well as chips dedicated to optimizing electric motor batteries, has more than doubled since 2006.

At the opening of CES on Tuesday, Nvidia announced a partnership with Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn. The latter is building a platform to produce the “computer brain” of its manufacturer customers’ connected vehicles. It will also start manufacturing its own cars. The iPhone assembler could also produce the autonomous cars that Apple is suspected of designing in the most secretive way in the uncertain future.

Tesla’s centralized model

This Nvidia Foxconn partnership is symbolic of the microprocessor giant’s investment in the automotive market. Nvidia, which has been developing chips for cars for twenty years, will provide Foxconn with all its experience in autonomous driving. Thus, the Taiwanese will gain strength in selling centralized car scanning solutions that have become “smartphones on wheels”. “We offer a central computer for the car. All functions are software based. “For example, the front camera will detect that it’s raining and the computer will decide to turn on the wipers,” says Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s automotive manager. The challenge, he said, is to “reduce the number of chips and therefore simplify the production chain.”

The Nvidia Drive platform, already used by manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, is open, meaning they can write their own software on it. This model of the central computer is the one that Tesla has been developing for a decade – Nvidia was also the supplier of the electric car pioneer until Elon Musk decided to take over the production of the chips.

“Tesla has a large fleet that collects data and allows it to add improvements. Other manufacturers follow their example. This is a good thing, because soon consumers will realize that there is no point in buying cars that cannot be upgraded because they are not controlled by software,” comments Danny Shapiro.

Reduce costs and increase performance

The American company Qualcomm, which also has a good position in the automotive sector, announced on Wednesday in Las Vegas that its next-generation microprocessors with 4 nanometer engraving precision will equip smart cars from 2025. The semiconductor maker also introduced the Snapdragon Ride Flex SoC processor. “digital cockpit”, which combines the functions of auxiliary control and autonomous control in one chip.

For its part, Japan’s Sony has unveiled a new electric car brand that will take advantage of its expertise in image sensors and displays, along with compatriot Honda. The duo is currently only presenting prototypes, but the first Afeela models are expected to hit American roads in 2026.

For Wayne Lamm, a consultant at CSS Insight, pioneers such as Qualcomm are integrating all of a car’s smart functions on the same platform “not to downsize, because the car has more space than a smartphone, but to reduce costs and improve performance. .

More computing power

The shortage of semiconductors during the Covid crisis really punished manufacturers who needed different chips for each car. Instead of having a system for heating, for windshield wipers, for locking doors, it’s about building a single brain fed by endless data from sensors, radars, lidars, etc.

“As a result, ordinary processors are no longer enough. Artificial intelligence drives progress. We have to include more computing power, more transistors, more advanced features,” explains Wayne Lamm. A cross-country skier’s delight.

Solveig Godeluck (with LM and Fl.D.) (in Las Vegas)

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