Why Audi’s zFAS is a blueprint for next-gen domain architectures

Why Audi’s zFAS is a blueprint for next-gen domain architectures

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

The zFAS, scheduled to enter series production in the next version of the A8 top-class sedan due end of 2017, unites multiple computing tasks on one powerful main board. Its most demanding role is sensor fusion. Here, the signals from multiple sensors like stereo cameras, radar, multi-axis acceleration sensors and, if applicable, lidar sensors are merged and transformed into a 360-degree digital environmental model which in turn is used by all the driver assistance systems including those responsible for autonomous driving to compute their respective action. “We need the zFAS for piloted driving in series,” an Audi spokesperson acknowledges.


In the zFAS therefore multiple microprocessors and microcontrollers share the workload. Basically, an application processor handles the compute-intensive image processing and low-level data fusion tasks; the host processor is responsible for the safety-critical aspects like object fusion, decision making and vehicle communication as shown in the block diagram. 


Next-gen semi automated driving

Fig. 1: More computing power than all ECUs in today’s cars combined: Generic view of a domain controller for Driver Assistance Systems that make use of sensor data fusion. Source: Infineon

It is known that Audi has a special relationship with Nvidia and therefore uses processors like the Tegra K1 for most tasks associated to graphical computing. But since the various sensors in the vehicle – front cameras, surround cameras radar etc – generate such a huge amount of data, the carmaker’s design engineers have chosen to employ two processors with the task of processing the sensor data – a Tegra K1 and a device from Mobileye, the EyeQ3 SoC. The Tegra is dedicated to processing the data from the four surround cameras; these data are used to assist the driver during parking. In the current version of the zFAS that will enter series production, the more time-critical data from the stereo front camera are fed to the EyeQ3. In addition, it will handle the data from the driver monitoring camera, another requirement for piloted driving.

The safety-relevant portion of the action is handled by an Aurix multicore microcontroller from Infineon. “You need to differentiate between the computational tasks associated to the graphical procedures and the really safety-critical decision making,” explains Thomas Boehm, Senior Director, Chassis and Safety Microcontrollers at chipmaker Infineon. “For decision-making and communications, the real-time requirements are significantly higher.” These tasks have to meet high functional safety standards such as ISO 26262, and the Aurix architecture therefore provides lockstep mechanisms – two identical cores that perform the same computational tasks; if the results do not match, a safety interrupt stops the system.


The communication between the application processor and the host processor occurs across a high-performance Ethernet switch on the PCB, implemented in an Altera Cyclone 5 FPGA. Additionally, this chip is responsible for the central timing and functions on the board, “a very important aspect”, the Audi spokesperson notes. The Ethernet bus within the zFAS board is not the same Ethernet we it from our office computers, but instead a species of deterministic Ethernet developed by Austrian technology company TTTech. This company also developed the middleware layer that enables the platform to run multiple virtual machines in a safe and secure manner. The middleware is compatible to the Autosar, the automotive standard software framework, explains Marc Lang, Director Sales & Marketing Automotive at TTTech. “The virtual machines with their applications are hermetically separated against each other to make sure that they have no mutual interaction”, Lang says. “The communication between tasks runs across the middleware layer.”


Audi’s zFAS design has already stimulated similar efforts across the automotive industry, Lang and Boehm acknowledge unanimously. Driven by the desire of carmakers to reduce the complexity of automotive control electronics – today, already a medium-sized vehicles run some 80 separate electronic control units, each one for a single task – OEMs transplant the basic architecture of the zFAS to other real-time critical domains like chassis control. The computing power and functional safety of this architecture enables innovative functions like torque vectoring or four-wheel steering, Lang says. Aurix is not the only architecture deployed in this environment; Lang says that he also has seen implementations with Renesas or NXP (formerly Freescale) processors. Nevertheless, Infineon holds a strong position in this field. “We know several OEMs that will bring their Aurix-based systems to the market in 2016”, says Boehm. In particular the usual suspects among the European premium OEMs are on the starting blocks. Including Audi himself: The carmaker already has plans to apply the zFAS approach to other domains beyond driver assistance. In the future, there will be only eight domain controllers instead of dozens of dedicated ECUs”, the Audi spokesperson quotes E/E development manager Rick Hudy.


Related articles:

Domain controller concept gains traction

Delphi selected to build Audi’s autopilot computer

Piloted driving takes centre stage at Audi’s CES presentation

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