It's official. Qualcomm's next trip — beyond smartphones and tablets — will be in a car.
The San Diego-based cellular chip giant has come to the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week to unveil the company's automotive strategy.
In an interview with EE Times, Kanwalinder Singh, senior vice president of business development for Qualcomm Technologies Inc., noted that Qualcomm will leverage the company's already strong presence in the in-car cellular modem market to advance automakers' telematics business.
It will join the brewing in-vehicle infotainment platform battle by introducing Snapdragon automotive solutions, and it plans to enter the booming advanced driver assistant systems market, initially by integrating dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) technology into its WiFi chip.
As cars of the future, increasingly connected with the outside world, are turning into “smartphones on wheels,” Qualcomm perceives the opportunity to use its undisputed lead in the global mobile phone business to morph into a formidable newcomer in the automotive chip market.
On Monday, Jan. 6, Qualcomm is introducing an “automotive-grade” infotainment chipset, the Snapdragon 602A applications processor, with a quad-core Krait CPU, Adreno 320 GPU, Hexagon DSP, integrated GNSS baseband processing, and additional high-performance audio, video, and communication cores.
The Snapdragon 602A processor is “pre-integrated with Qualcomm Gobi 9×15 multimode 3G/4G-LTE and QCA6574 Qualcomm VIVE 2-stream, dual-band 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth LE 4.0-based modules,” according to the company. Qualcomm's goal is to provide car OEMs with “unprecedented, integrated connectivity options for connected infotainment systems.”
Telematics: platform for connected car apps
It's important to note that Qualcomm isn't exactly new to the automotive market.
The company has been there for a decade, Singh told EE Times. Initially, Qualcomm provided modem chips to General Motors, when the car OEM began its OnStar telematics services.
Today, Qualcomm dominates the in-car modem market. Singh said, “It's rare to find a car where Qualcomm's modem chip is not used.”
Building on its solid foothold in in-car modems, Qualcomm's next target is the in-vehicle infotainment system market.
The telematics industry today is migrating from 2.5G to LTE, mostly by skipping 3G, according to Egil Juliussen, principal analyst, infotainment and ADAS market, at IHS Automotive. Thus far, three OEMs — Audi, GM, and BMW — have announced plans for LTE, according to Juliussen. “All three will use Qualcomm.”
Qualcomm's Singh believes these car OEMs are planning to integrate LTE modems, not just in premium cars but also in mass-market models — in order to make their cars “future-proof.” The new LTE modem design-win opportunity gives Qualcomm a perfect opening to pitch the company's newly designed, auto-grade Snapdragon, now for in-vehicle infotainment systems.
Describing telematics as the genesis of today's “connected cars,” IHS analyst Juliussen explained that telematics, which has been slowly growing over the last 16 years, is suddenly “a platform of hardware and software for connected cars.”
Just as a modem embedded inside a handset has served as the vital communication link to make handsets smarter — with a host of new services and downloadable apps — new-generation in-car modems are about to make every car smarter, more app-intensive, and capable of receiving advanced services.
Singh believes that LTE is effective in enhancing automakers' telematics services. “There are 60 to 100 ECUs in a car these days,” he says, “all of which are running software.” By using LTE modems, a carmaker will be able to update all of its software — over the air. The connectivity will be useful, also, in “interacting with a car remotely,” said Singh, such as comfort-setting inside a vehicle or opening a door.
In-vehicle infotainment systems are already a pretty competitive market, though.
Nvidia, for example, dominates the higher-end of the market, as the graphic chip vendor offers its top-end architecture to companies like Audi and Tesla.
Next Page: Sweet spot
Asked about the company's game plan, Singh said that Qualcomm's strategy is to leverage a deeper level of integration in its automotive Snapdragon SoC to attack every car's in-vehicle infotainment system, “up to the mid-tier. That's where the sweet spot is.”
Texas Instruments, Freescale, and NXP are also strong players in the automotive silicon market.
Singh pointed out, however, that although they are strong in the industrial automotive chip segment, all three chip suppliers have already fled the smartphone modem business. This leaves them vulnerable to new competition from Qualcomm, which can provide highly integrated in-vehicle infotainment SoCs that run on modern OSs and offer LTE modem, GPS, and WiFi integrated on the global platform, Singh asserted.
QNX and Android
Snapdragon Automotive Solutions offer “support for Android and QNX operating systems with automotive-specific optimizations and integrated application frameworks,” according to Qualcomm. They will allow automakers to build connected infotainment systems compliant with automotive requirements for fast boot of critical services, the company promises.
Qualcomm is also cognizant of serving multiple screens installed inside a car and various consumer devices brought into a vehicle. Snapdragon Automotive Solutions offer dualmode support for 802.11, Miracast, and automotive Bluetooth profiles.
The company also boasted that its platform is “designed to interoperate with consumer devices from leading smartphone and tablet ecosystems to deliver the right blend of in-car integrated infotainment with brought-in experiences.”
During the interview with EE Times, Qualcomm's Singh acknowledged that the company has been working on a variety of air interfaces around the car, including radar, WiFi, and IEEE 802.11p (also known as dedicated short-range communications). The combination of WiFi and 802.11p, he contends, will make a car more alert to objects in its immediate environment.
Preemptive move toward DSRC
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is yet to decide on the DSRC mandate for all cars in the United States. However, Qualcomm has already begun demonstrating to carmakers, showing that once every smartphone is embedded with WiFi and DSRC, cars will be safer because they can detect pedestrians carrying DSRC-enabled smartphones.
Describing DSRC as one of the many tools that lead to car safety, Singh called it the “icing on the cake, but not the cake itself.”
The original concept for DSRC is to use the technology for vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) or vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications.
Qualcomm's preemptive move toward DSRC, while virtually no US infrastructure exists to support it, has surprised many industry observers. IHS analyst Juliussen said, “I'm amazed that Qualcomm is planning to integrate DSRC into its SoCs this early in the game.” Juliussen believes that V2V is still three to five years down the road.
However, the analyst noted that V2I is starting in Europe.
Next Page: One OS is ADAS ready
By integrating DSRC early, Qualcomm could make its automotive SoC “an easier choice for German car OEMs,” said Juliussen.
“Automakers are traditionally very loyal to their existing technology suppliers, and they don't kick them out easily, unless something goes really wrong.” But for Qualcomm, DSRC in its SoCs could be a strategy to get their foot in the door in Europe, Juliussen speculates.
How Qualcomm plans to move into the overall ADAS segment remains less clear, however.
Singh implies that Qualcomm's in-car infotainment won't remain just for “entertainment apps” but it will eventually evolve into a platform displaying information related to ADAS.
ADAS, however, is a safety-critical system and has stricter rules than infotainment, said IHS's Juliussen. “The OS is the key that determines what system can be used for ADAS.” In his opinion, only QNX, among all the infotainment OSs, has safety-critical ratings, and QNX runs on ARM. “Hence Qualcomm can get into the ADAS business,” said Juliussen. “Currently the ADAS systems are using much simpler OSs (usually, often proprietary) than infotainment OSs, but will need to have a more capable OS in the future.”
OS virtualization can also be used, as the path for Linux and others, said Juliussen. “But I think this adds more complexity and some cost, but it can be done.”
In-car modem market
According to IHS Automotive, the current embedded modem market is still mostly 2.5G since the vast majority of telematics systems operate their services at a low data-rate.
Juliussen, however, pointed out that car OEMs are looking at LTE, because they want to future-proof their connected car technology. Their motivation is not necessarily the bandwidth, he added.
The widespread use of LTE inside cars, however, faces challenges. It will be “difficult [for car OEMs] to compete with the smartphone data plan that most drivers will have,” said Juliussen. “If the driver can include the telematics LTE data plan as part of a multi-device plan, that'll help. But in the United States, the mobile network operators are not known for allowing cooperation with their competitors.”
The story, however, is a little different elsewhere in the world. “The customer in Western Europe, for example, chooses which mobile network operator carrier to use for his embedded modem. Hence, the auto LTE modem can be put on the smartphone data plan,” says Juliussen.
With the advent of LTE rollout, IHS Automotive forecasts the LTE portion of embedded telematics should grow to 30% worldwide by 2019, but as high as 60% or more in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and Korea.
This article originally appeared in EBN's sister publication EE Times .