Thursday, October 9, 2008

FPGAs with Open System Architecture Drive In-Cabin Automotive Applications

The days of horsepower, valves per cylinder and 0 to 60 performance driving mainstream and luxury automotive sales are more or less over. At least as long as gas prices ominously hover around the $4 per gallon range. After all, what good is a gas-guzzling, high-performance engine when the majority of your drive time consists of stop and go traffic and your speedometer topping out at 45 mph? Indeed, automotive manufactures and OEMs have changed gears to leverage the latest technological innovations to enhance the in-cabin experience of driving your automobile.

Semiconductor and electronics companies have latched on to the automotive market to make the driving experience as comfortable and effortless as possible. For years, microprocessors and microcontrollers have been used “under the hood” in mission critical applications, such as anti-locking brakes and safety-restraint systems. But with the advent of in-cabin infotainment and driver assistance systems, the need for higher performance semiconductors, such as ASICs, ASSPs and FPGAs, has seen significant growth. Today, the total costs associated with automotive electronics systems are higher than the steel used to build the car. According to iSuppli Corporation, automotive electronics now account for more than 25% of a vehicle’s cost and that number is projected to grow to 40% by 2010.

As the requirements of today’s in-cabin electronics systems evolve, manufactures strive for higher levels of innovation with smaller, less expensive, and more flexible builds to win the cost and time-to-market battles. Many manufacturers have turned to ASICs and ASSPs due to their attractive per-unit cost advantage and performance capabilities. However, they are sacrificing a great deal in terms of hardware flexibility, scalability, and the threat of device obsolescence. As a result, FPGA vendors are now delivering silicon solutions specifically targeting many of these high-performance automotive applications typically associated with ASICs and ASSPs. FPGAs are providing optimal processing functions along with the flexibility to scale their designs, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: FPGA to ASIC Integration Allows Ramping Up Controller Performance and Features (Lower Axis)

With FPGAs, automotive suppliers are able to design single systems that scale across multiple automotive classes. By simply adding new functionality to their existing designs, automotive manufactures are able to target multiple platform variations and feature sets. FPGAs also enable in-field hardware revisions and corrections (i.e. ability to make field hardware modifications to accommodate the next consumer standard, such as the addition of an MP3 interface) without having to replace components. From a performance standpoint, FPGAs allow highly distributed parallel processing on many incoming signals, thus providing higher performance than standalone digital signal processors (DSPs) at a greatly reduced cost. Hardware costs, however, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the total costs of developing in-cabin infotainment systems. The majority of costs reside in the development of the software that resides on the hardware.

Today, more than 80% of automotive innovations come from computer systems. As a result, software has become the major contributor to the value of automobiles, while also becoming an increasing cost factor. And the amount of software being used in automobiles is growing exponentially. Within the last thirty years, automotive-specific software has evolved from zero to tens of millions of lines of code. For instance, today’s luxury car implements about 270 user-interactive functions, deployed over approximately 70 embedded platforms. This software totals about 100 megabytes of binary code. The next generation of luxury vehicles, hitting the market over the next five years, is expected to run up to one gigabyte of software.

As automotive in-cabin systems continue to reach new levels of complexity, development costs are starting to reach levels that automotive manufacturers can not justify. For an in-cabin system, automotive manufacturers must take into account the price of the hardware, the costs associated with developing the equipment platform, testing the system, and developing the software. The costs associated with maintaining multiple platforms over multiple vehicle classes significantly add to the cost of automotive electronic systems.

As a result, an emerging trend today within the automotive industry is the introduction of open system architectures, allowing OEM infotainment equipment suppliers to improve unfavorable cost structures. An open architecture can offer the basis for a cost-effective, manufacturer-independent, next-generation infotainment system.

FPGAs enable the ideal implementation in infotainment systems that use an open system architectures, as they make second-sourcing, inventory flexibility, and redeployment of software on new scalable platforms easily realized. In addition, with the ever-increasing number of applications enabled by the use of embedded microprocessors, soft core processors available in FPGAs offer an ideal solution for designs where software applications may need to be ported reliably to subsequent generations of FPGAs.

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