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FPGAs Are Essential Building Blocks for Next-Gen Automotive Designs

FPGAs Are Essential Building Blocks for Next-Gen Automotive Designs
Posted 03/01/2024 by Bob O’Donnell, President and chief analyst, TECHnalysis Research

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Car tech is hot again.

After a hugely hyped build-up around fully autonomous driving several years back and then a starkly different reality, a sense of technology equilibrium is returning to the automotive world. There’s a more realistic perspective on what technologies can bring meaningful value to cars now and which ones are still a few years off. Even more important is the widely growing recognition of how important it is to bring more advanced technology into our automobiles.

One of the chief beneficiaries of these developments is FPGAs. These programmable chips have been providing a range of critical functions to cars for many years already, but with the rise of increasingly sophisticated automotive electronics as well as the focus on software-defined vehicles, the opportunities for them are growing.

Because of their very flexible nature, FPGAs can provide several types of capabilities across multiple automotive subsystems, including in-vehicle infotainment, advanced driver assistant systems (ADAS), and charging systems in hybrid and electric vehicles. Functions such as serving as interconnect bridges between different types of sensors, display interfacing and scaling, high-speed SERDES links, secure root of trust, object detection and more make FPGA-driven offerings essential building blocks for modern cars.

Enabling modern car features with AI and sensor bridging

In the case of the infotainment system, for example, FPGAs can help drive and scale multiple displays of various sizes and resolutions, enabling more of the “computer on wheels” types of experiences that car buyers are starting to demand. The ability to drive high-speed video interfaces such as DisplayPort and MIPI, and bridge between them, as FPGAs can offer, gives car designers more flexibility in choosing from various types of display suppliers and components. They also help enable the highly visual environments we’re starting to see in modern cockpits. In addition, FPGA-powered features like local dimming can make all those screens look both better and easier to see in the ever-changing light environment within a car.

As the electronics within cars evolve from a complex mesh of as many as 100 or more interconnected ECUs (electronic control units) to a much smaller but more powerful number of zones, FPGAs can also play an essential role in shuttling data and information around these zonal architectures. In fact, the high-speed data transfer capabilities of FPGAs that leverage technologies like the integrated SERDES of the FPGA—but do so at lower power consumption rates—help enable these new types of architectures.

In the case of advanced driver assistant systems, FPGAs offer several important capabilities. Most notable is their ability to bridge together multiple types of data sensors, including cameras, radar, lidar and more. Most people believe that the only way to make significant progress on assisted and, eventually, autonomous driving is by using a technique called sensor fusion that aggregates these various feeds into a single source upon which critical driving decisions can be made. FPGAs such as the Lattice CrossLink™-NX from Lattice Semiconductor play an essential role in that process.

For hybrid and battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs), FPGAs offer the essential ability to interface between battery packs and chargers and serve as power inverters. The AI capabilities of FPGAs are also starting to be used in more advanced digital cockpit designs for features like driver monitoring, to ensure the driver is awake and alert.

Providing automotive security

As exciting as the move to more software-defined, computer-powered, and autonomously driven vehicles may be, it also brings with it a significantly enhanced security risk. Once again, FPGAs can come to the rescue here as the speedy boot time and integrated security functions of something like Lattice MachXO3D™ FPGAs make them very well suited to enable hardware root of trust capabilities within a car. Just as these FPGAs are used in critical datacenter and telecom devices, so too can they be leveraged in increasingly connected and potentially vulnerable automobiles. This is particularly important for cars because while malware, viruses, bot attacks and other attack vectors might lead to lost data in compute environments, in cars it could lead to lost lives.

In addition, ISO 26262 is the international standard for functional safety (FuSa) in automotive applications that products need to meet. Lattice Diamond™ design flow software tool is certified up to ASIL-D, which enables the design of functionally safe products which can be incorporated into vehicles.

Easy to use, customizable automotive solutions 

Having the right types of hardware is important, but the real trick to making FPGAs useful in the automotive market is to have the right kind of software tools to customize these programmable devices. While FPGAs are known for being a powerful, flexible option for sophisticated system designs like automobiles, these chips are also a bit notorious for being a challenge to program and customize for specific applications.

To address these concerns, Lattice offers a full range of advanced programming tools. These include their Lattice Radiant®, Lattice Propel™, and Lattice Diamond™ design environment and tools for building the circuit design a company wants to integrate into the FPGA, as well as an automotive-specific solution stack they call Lattice Drive™. On the chip programming side, it’s important to note that the Lattice tools support the creation of chips that meet critical automotive safety and reliability standards including ASIL-D. For Lattice Drive, the company links together various hardware platforms with pre-built IP cores such as DisplayPort receive and transmit functions and video scalers that can be used within their chip design applications. This greatly simplifies the process of creating FPGAs with the right functionality for automotive designs. The company also has numerous hardware reference designs that be used as starting points for automotive applications. Finally, for more advanced projects, Lattice also offers custom design services and a robust design partner ecosystem, which automotive companies and suppliers can leverage to build exactly the elements they need.

The days of truly high-tech cars are upon us and as automakers and their partners work to deliver the kinds of advanced car features and experiences that consumers are starting to expect, it’s critical to look at all the key technologies and components that can enable them. FPGAs have already been part of this ecosystem for some time, but their more advanced capabilities are now opening up some exciting new opportunities in the automotive space that are definitely worth checking out.

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.