Software-upgradable cars launch new platform race

Software-upgradable cars launch new platform race

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By eeNews Europe

There is little argument that Tesla Motors changed the conversation around automobiles in 2015, or that NVidia caught a ride on Tesla’s coattails. Tesla has set the stage for the automotive future by rolling out new autopilot features — such as lane keeping and self-parking — via over-the-air (OTA) software upgrades. Tesla showed a glimpse of the future in which consumers don’t need to buy a new car to add features. The presumptive car of tomorrow, behaving like a smartphone, is software upgradable. Of course, OTA isn’t a foreign concept to the automotive industry. Some car makers like Nissan have been sending software patches over the air. Ford is partnering with Microsoft to provide continual updates to its next-generation infotainment systems.

But none of the automakers has added software upgradable features for engines, transmissions, brakes or suspensions — like what Tesla did in enabling some autonomous driving functions via software.

Changing conversation

To put it mildly, Tesla is freaking out car OEMs and Tier Ones. Today, none of the conventional carmakers can offer anything close to what Tesla does — “without changing the entire hardware and software architecture in a car,” explained Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s senior director of Automotive.

Armed with the company’s DRIVE PX platform based on its own Tegra X1 processor, Nvidia is coming to Las Vegas next month for CES, pitching its centralized CPU platform to “make cars better and improve their value,” Shapiro explained.
Acknowledging Tesla’s halo effect, Jeff Bier, founder of the Embedded Vision Alliance, said that software upgrades “will create huge opportunities — to save people’s lives and improve efficiency.”

Nvidia, a relative newcomer to the automotive field, has nothing to lose in prompting carmakers to start from scratch and embrace a brand new centralized CPU platform like its PX platform for their new models.

In contrast, neither NXP nor Renesas Electronics – two leading automotive chip suppliers – can afford a grandstand move like Nvidia’s. A lot of their chips are already designed into millions of cars.

Digital networking processor inside a car

In an interview with EE Times, Kurt Sievers, executive vice president and general manager of NXP’s automotive business unit, said, “Nvidia certainly knows how to speak high-tech language” that gets people’s attention.

A modern car already deploys more than 50 ECUs inside a vehicle, with each tasked to dedicated functions, much like a distributed computing architecture.

Since modern cars use many sensors, each ECU also has to pre-process sensory data, which needs to travel via secure connections to a central processing unit for sensor fusion, explained Sievers. Fully aware of the need for a powerful platform to perform software upgrades and complex sensor fusion, NXP, freshly merged with Freescale, is offering car OEMs high-performance multicore networking processors — originally developed by Freescale’s digital networking group. “We are letting our customers try these samples,” explained Sievers.

Sievers, however, does not agree with Nvidia’s approach, which is reminiscent of Intel’s brute-force CPU-centric push for PC improvements. Nvidia today makes no bones about leveraging sheer processing power to revolutionize vehicle architecture and improve the car’s capacity for deep learning. Nvidia is applying its GPU-accelerated deep learning expertise to computer vision. In medicine, for example, the same technology is used to detect cancer cells, said Shapiro. “Frankly, if your only application is automotive, I don’t think you can match the resources you need to explore deep learning as the way we’ve been able to do.”

Focus on security

NXP believes that to increase the reliability of cars, it needs to go beyond a powerful CPU-based platform and offer much more secure vehicle network architecture. To that end, NXP is beefing up security throughout the in-vehicle network where critical data travels, explained Sievers.

NXP is putting a tamper-resistant, secure hardware element — akin to a front-door lock — in each interface where external data enters a car via Bluetooth, cellular or V2V connectivity. If the data’s source can’t be verified, the hardware element can shut it down.

The next issue is the data that floats around inside the vehicle network. “It’s like securing corridors inside a house,” said Sievers. This is easier said than done because the in-vehicle network’s domain structures include a number of branches. Without detailing how NXP plans to secure this network, Sievers said, “We have some ideas. We’re working on it right now.” Once the data reaches applications – “similar to getting inside a room at home,” Sievers said, “We will run security in software.”

Protecting vehicles from hackers takes complex planning and execution. Egil Juliussen, director research, Infotainment & ADAS at IHS Automotive, observed that “hacking research has shown that nearly all access points can be compromised.”

Can you undo changes?

Amrit Vivekanand, vice president of automotive business for Renesas Electronics America, singled out “OTA software upgrades” as one of the biggest industry challenges. While attendees at the CES 2016 will see many enabling technologies for autonomous cars and V2V car communications, he said, OTA remains a huge deal for automakers. “There is no consensus on how to achieve necessary levels of security, memory, processors and gateways” for software upgradeable cars, said Vivekanand.

In adding new automotive features via software upgrades, engineers worry about the security of the operation, robustness of the technology, and resources available inside a car, he explained.

Sure, you can download your software upgrade. But what if the upgrades don’t work? In particular, Vivekanand wonders, “How do you undo changes? Can your car revert back to the state before you did the upgrade?”

The “undo” imperative presents an interesting challenge to vehicle designers. “Do you double the size of a flash memory or add another bank of memory that can store the original state before the upgrade?” Neither is cheap, said Vivekanand. But if the car can’t do certain software upgrades, shouldn’t it just warn users that the current version 2.0 platform in this vehicle is too pooped to pop? “In theory, yes,” said Vivekanand. “But when a number of modules are due for software upgrades at the same time, there is always a risk that some software upgrades can go wrong.” This applies especially to software upgrades in different modules that aren’t pre-tested together.

Assume, for example, you’re trying to upgrade HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) software. But the updates don’t kick in. Vivekanand said, “Consumers will ask for an undo command button.” The car should ask the driver to turn off and turn on the car — a classic reboot maneuver that would restore the original HVAC state in 5-10 seconds, he explained.


Renesas, earlier this month, launched R-Car H3, dubbed the “first SoC from the third-generation R-Car automotive computing platform for the autonomous-driving era.” The new R-Car H3 features improved computing performance and automotive functional safety support, claimed Renesas. The R-Car H3 is built around the ARM Cortex-A57/A53 cores, employing the newest 64-bit CPU core architecture from ARM.

The on-chip IMP-X5 parallel programmable engine offers advanced image recognition technology in addition to the CPU and GPU. The IMP-X5, exclusive to Renesas, is “a recognition engine that is optimized for interoperation with the CPU,” the company said. While the R-Car H3 is already compliant to ISO 26262 (ASIL-B), Renesas’ Vivekanand said that the company’s plan is to offer even higher functional safety on its autonomous car platform. Renesas is adding, in a module, its PH850/P1X microcontroller — which can offer a “lockstep core for CPU.”

The PH850/PX1, designed for controlling the chassis, steering and braking, can be used to validate R-Car H3 output, by running similar calculations and defining the boundaries, explained Vivekanand. The R-Car H3/PX1 combined module, which improves its functional safety further to ASIL-D, can tell the car what to do via real-time communication, he added.

Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times
Article originally posted on EE Times.

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