BIRMINGHAM, MI – NXP Semiconductors, the Goliath among automotive semiconductor suppliers, plays its latest trump card, and it’s a powerful one.
The Netherlands-based tech firm today releases details of its new NXP S32 computing platform that promises to dramatically cut the amount of time automakers and suppliers spend on writing code, greatly enhance vehicle systems security and allow on-the-fly, over-the-air updates to vehicle software.
“This creates a new paradigm for our customers,” Matt Johnson, senior vice president and general manager-Product Lines and Software, Auto MCU and Processors, says of the S32 platform that NXP calls the “world’s first truly scalable” computing platform.
“Right now, there really is no competitive alternative to this platform. No one else has a product with this breadth, this performance and this ability to work across such a broad application space in a vehicle.”
Eight of the top 15 automakers around the world already have committed to using the new microcontrollers/microprocessors on ’20- and ’21-model vehicles, even though hardware won’t be available for testing until next year. That early interest has executives at a product backgrounder here convinced the company has a huge hit on its hands.
The new S32 semiconductor platform, said to offer 10 times the computing power of the best microprocessors currently offered industrywide, is designed to meet the rapidly escalating onboard computing demands driven by the auto industry’s march toward autonomous, electric and connected vehicles, Johnson says.
Those technologies are “fun to talk about, but it is much more difficult to actually make this happen,” he says, noting on average today’s cars already require more than 100 million lines of software code to operate, and that will increase by at least a factor of six near term.
“That’s creating a huge challenge for our customers,” Johnson says. “Software…as a general rule is the No.1 thing that prevents them from moving faster. The amount of software that is not compatible and needs to be updated system by system is almost overwhelming.
“The software challenge is literally growing exponentially.”
That’s where the new 32-bit microcontroller comes in. Today’s vehicles have a mix of software approaches, meaning coding is almost entirely unique from one vehicle system to the next. When engineering a new model or updating an existing one, almost all of that software has to be rewritten and validated, a time-consuming and expensive process.
NXP’s new modular processor uses an identical software approach across all vehicle domains, such as powertrain, chassis, safety and infotainment. That means more than 40% of software development is reusable from one system to the next, compared with less than 10% today.
Within a single-application domain, up to 90% of the software is reusable. So, for example, most of the work in developing powertrain controls for one vehicle line would carry over to the powertrain software for another model.
NXP officials shy away from saying by how much this more modular software architecture could shorten product-cycle times for automakers, but with the growing amount of coding required, the impact could be significant.
One OE source tells WardsAuto it typically takes 24 months to develop software for a new user interface, for example. For more complex systems, such as autonomous functions, active chassis control or hybrid powertrains, about 12 to 16 months of software development and simulation are required – ahead of the 24-month vehicle-development cycle.
That means taking 40% of time out of such programs could save automakers several months or even a year or more of development effort.
“If you’re an automaker and you can reduce your software-development time or increase your reuse by that much, it’s game-changing,” Johnson says. “This has a huge impact on our customer base.”
Unlike today’s technology, the new platform also allows for zero-downtime over-the-air updates of software, because the data can be drip-fed to the NXP processor in small bites while the vehicle is in motion.
The microprocessor/microcontroller also has enhanced cybersecurity features and will support a range of artificial-intelligence accelerators, NXP says.
The new S32 represents the biggest generational leap ever for NXP technology, Johnson says.
“We’ve reinvented our entire portfolio of products going forward,” he says. “Every processor, microcontroller and microprocessor will be based on this platform.”
Ultimately, NXP sees the processor paving the way for an entirely new vehicle-control architecture that is less of a patchwork system to system and much more hierarchical – “a system of systems,” as Johnson calls it.
Most automakers likely will make the transition one system at a time. But a few are considering more dramatic leaps that would completely revamp their vehicle-control architectures, including at least two Chinese manufacturers, NXP executives say.
Some customers are trying both paths, Johnson says. “Once you’ve adopted it, to use it again and again is easier and easier. We believe the most important step is the first one, and after that you’ll see much broader proliferation.”
NXP won’t identify the eight automakers that have plans to use the S32, but executives say they are scattered around every region of the world. Most will employ the platform in ’21 models, but some will work it into ’20 vehicles.
There is no one vehicle system that appears to be drawing the lion’s share of initial S32 applications, Johnson says, adding, the areas moving fastest are around vehicle networking, advanced driver-assistance systems, autonomy and electric vehicles.
NXP doesn’t detail the cost of the new S32 processors. Johnson says simply that “every part has to win on its own, no matter what,” suggesting there are enough gains in power, performance and design simplification to offset any potential cost increase.
Although it doesn’t break out financials related to its automotive-microcontroller business, NXP controls a leading 14% share of the automotive semiconductor market, according to Strategy Analytics. The supplier posted record second-quarter automotive revenue of $938 million overall, a 9% jump from like-2016 that it credited to “exceptional traction” in the microcontroller and advanced analog products sectors.
“Our growth rate is and will continue to be above the market,” Johnson says. “With what we’re seeing right now with this (S32) platform…(and) the pull from the market, we’re sitting at levels that are two or three times the opportunity we’ve ever had in our history. So our confidence is increasing that this is a great future opportunity for us.”
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