Building High-Performance Computing into Cars with AV Dev Platform

Article By : Junko Yoshida

NXP has launched BlueBox 3.0, a new dev platform that doubles the embedded computing power and boosts I/O and PCIe connectivity eight-fold...

As the curtain lifts on CES, NXP Semiconductors has launched BlueBox 3.0, a new automotive development platform that doubles the embedded computing power of BlueBox 2.0 and boosts I/O and PCIe connectivity eight-fold.

The announcement underscores NXP’s platform approach. While still engaged in a competition to offer more trillions of operations per second (TOPS) than their rivals, leading automotive chip companies have also been vying to establish their respective platform solutions. The favored approach is a scalable development platform with which carmakers can “experiment, develop, test out and validate software and advanced features that clearly enhance safety,” according to Ali Osman Örs, NXP’s director of AI strategy and strategic partnerships, automotive processing.

By moving to BlueBox 3.0, “We’re also recognizing that there’s a lot more variety in the type of compute and expansion needed,” explained Örs in an interview with EE Times.

Three basic building blocks of the BlueBox 3.0 platform are an LX2160A multicore processor, which is the highest-performance member of NXP’s Layerscape family, NXP’s latest gateway processor, S32G274, and Kalray’s MPPA (massively parallel processor array) processor. The first two sit on the development platform’s motherboard. The Kalray’s MPPA, which addresses heterogeneous AI acceleration, plugs into the motherboard via PCIe expansion cards.

(Source: NXP)

Critical to the BlueBox 3.0 platform is its flexibility and expandability.

Increased PCIe slots let users plug in “elements like Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning accelerator cards, additional vision perception device cards, bringing in all the camera connectivity, and radar and LiDAR – whose connectivity is traditionally based on a CAN or Ethernet,” said Örs. “Those can still come in through the regular CAN, Ethernet connectivity ports, but if there’s added expansions needed for traditional sensors or, sensors that we’re not covering yet, they can all come in through the richer PCI express slots.”

Advantages of BlueBox 3.0 are “fast prototyping of L2+ systems as developers can focus on their specific solution while using NXP and its partner’s development software,” observed Mark Fitzgerald, director of the autonomous vehicle practice at Strategy Analytics. “It saves time and money.”

(Source: NXP)

He added, “The same can be said for the development of domain or zonal controllers within the vehicle – a definite trend for automakers.” Fitzgerald noted, “VW is going this route. All eyes are on them to see if a mass-market OEM can be successful” in keeping up with rapid changes in underlying vehicle architecture.

From AV to ‘differentiated vehicles’
Carmakers have begun scaling back their initial all-out pursuit of full autonomy. Instead, they are investing more energy and resources to enhance advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS) and other features.

NXP said that it seeks to provide carmakers with “immediate practical opportunity to harness compute power for differentiated vehicles.” The operative word is “differentiated.”

Different OEMs are planning to bring in different features to next-generation vehicles. These include advanced networking solutions, intelligent recorders for sensor data, active safety, parking assistance and driver assistance. OEMs are also looking to include elements that require more autonomy – such  as traffic jam pilots, valet parking and highway pilots.

With BlueBox 3.0, NXP is offering “a much wider portfolio of applications” beyond ADAS and AV, noted Örs. “We want them to use the BlueBox platform to experiment and build their own solutions.”

The issue for OEMs isn’t just about slapping new hardware onto their vehicle architecture. Their concern is whether they have the right software and underlying architecture to support such new features. More important, they must be able to not only play with new features but also test software, by simulating and validating the safety of such new functions.

Safety validation
For example, “highway pilot” enables on-ramp, off-ramp autonomous highway driving. But for safety’s sake, carmakers must consider numerous potential scenarios and build a safety case, proving their vehicles can handle each task.

When highway pilot is on, the vehicle is essentially driving autonomously. What if the vehicle encounters a new construction zone not marked on the map? What if the vehicle has a catastrophic mechanical failure? What if sensors become so degraded that the vehicle is driving autonomously blind?

None of these scenarios is rare enough to call it a corner case. The vehicle should recognize such common crises swiftly and ask the driver to take over.

But what if the driver doesn’t respond? Or what if the driver himself is suffering a medical emergency?

The vehicle must be programmed to first reduce its speed, spot an emergency lane and pull over. Next, what if there is no space to pull over? If no other choice, even if it is the worst possible option, the vehicle must be programmed to make an emergency stop in the middle of the road.

Such a discussion of various scenarios is necessary to remind carmakers that developing a highway pilot feature is not a matter of a processor with a lot of TOPS or AI/ML capabilities. It requires a development platform that allows them “to test out safety and build end solutions that are safe,” explained Örs.

Bluebox 3.0 vs. rivals’ solutions
“NXP, along with competitors are transitioning from silicon suppliers to platform suppliers in order to move up the value chain,” observed Strategy Analytics’ Fitzgerald. “The BlueBox solution gives developers access to NXP and partner’s hardware and software, and it is a gateway into development of ADAS/AV solutions that will include [existing] NXP chips already in production.” In his view, that would lead to “more sales for NXP.”

Of course, Nvidia is already offering similar products such as the Nvida DRIVE AGX Developer Kit, which Fitzgerald described as “likely the closest competitor.”

Then, there is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Ride Platform. Also, Intel/Mobileye are working on a full solution with silicon, software to in-house RADAR and LiDAR, Fitzgerald observed.

It remains unclear what specific power consumption advantages BlueBox 3.0 brings. NXP’s presentation does not mention this issue. Fitzgerald said, “Though not critical in a development platform, production versions must be quite power efficient to meet OEM/Tier One’s power budgets.” He noted, “The partnership with Kalray should help. Kalray claims their power consumption is one tenth of existing solutions with limited to no cooling needs.”

From a development platform to SoCs
Citing a key aspect of BlueBox 3.0, Örs said, “We’re leveraging existing silicon, already available in our portfolio.” He noted, “But [we’re] putting it together in a system level with multiple devices to give a scalable and flexible development platform to our partners and customers, such that eventually some of these functionalities that are distributed in multiple devices could come into a single silicon device as well.”

Örs pointed out, “So, we have a lot more horsepower in the BlueBox than likely needed. Our expectation would be that the customers are able to build their deployment software, improve the efficiency of their end system on the blue box. Maybe they would come up with their own more optimized version by using the same pieces of silicon, or maybe different versions within the same family and deploy that into [their vehicles] in volume.”

In other words, NXP’s development platform becomes a testing ground from which both NXP and its customers can learn. If a leading OEM identifies its preferred direction on chips, “their needs are typically reflected in our future generation silicon,” said Örs.

Path to autonomy
Egil Juliussen, a veteran auto industry analyst, wondered if BlueBox 3.0 is robust enough to address the inevitable evolution from ADAS to fully autonomous vehicles. Even if OEMs aren’t rolling out AVs right away, “they are looking for a path to the future – L3 and L4 vehicles,” he said.

BlueBox 3.0
(Source: NXP)

NXP, nonetheless, believes its new BlueBox boasts the computing horsepower to serve the needs of future vehicles.

As for the performance of the BlueBox 3.0, Örs pointed out, “The LX 2168A has 16 high performance arm 72 cores. We have S32G274 for the current generation gateway. It is somewhat flexible, since we can upgrade on that slot in the future without changing the blue box itself.” He explained that S32G allows for ASIL-D compliance, which can act as both a safety co-processor and gateway device for automotive.

NXP is launching BlueBox 3.0 with Kalray as the accelerator partner. “Kalray can have up to 160 CPU accelerator cores for neural net and math acceleration as needed.”

Above all, what makes BlueBox 3.0 stand out is the increased number of PCIe slots. It was three in BlueBox 2.0, and now it is to up to six PCIe slots.

Leveraging the terminology HPC (High Performance Compute) often used in the server domain, Örs explained that, with Automotive HPC, “We are trying to make the ‘server on the wheels’ concept more of a reality by deploying [BlueBox 3.0] in the automotive realm, where safety and security are fundamental pillars of NXP’s portfolio.”

Software orchestration
All the hardware building blocks for BlueBox 3.0 are ready, according to NXP. But it will take until the end of the first quarter for NXP to finalize all the software elements that sit above the basic layer of SDK. These software elements are essential for the BlueBox 3.0 to orchestrate data movement among multiple devices on the platform, explained NXP’s Örs.

For example, the data stream input for the cameras goes to the Kalray accelerator for object identification and classification. That data, then, must be fed into a planner compute module which would be running on a large CPU device (i.e. LX2160A). “That data path orchestration, though the data is moving on a PCIe, must be carried out efficiently. You need to make sure that the timing of each data packet coming in makes sense. Then, it’s S32G that validates those actuation commands are sane.”

NXP takes a pride in creating a “close-knit” partner ecosystem, with a goal to provide “a quick ramp up,” and “an example that system designers can work from,” explained Örs. In addition to Kalray, partners backing BlueBox 3.0 include:  dSPACE, Embotech, Edge Case Research (ECR),  eProsima, Green Hills Software (GHS), Intempora, Micron Technology, MicroSys, Real-Time Innovations (RTI), and Teraki.

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