NXP BlueBox 3.0 to Enable “Differentiated Vehicles”

Article By : Junko Yoshida

NXP Semiconductors' BlueBox 3.0 automotive development platform doubles the embedded computing power of BlueBox 2.0 and boosts I/O and PCIe connectivity eightfold.

At January’s virtual CES, NXP Semiconductors launched BlueBox 3.0, an automotive development platform that doubles the embedded computing power of BlueBox 2.0 and boosts I/O and PCIe connectivity eightfold.

The announcement underscores NXP’s platform approach. While rivals are still engaged in the competition to offer more trillions of operations per second (TOPS), NXP is pushing to alter the focus, promoting 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 artificial-intelligence strategy and strategic partnerships for 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,” Örs said 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 massively parallel processor array (MPPA) processor. The first two sit on the development platform’s motherboard. Kalray’s MPPA, which addresses heterogeneous AI acceleration, plugs into the motherboard via PCIe expansion cards.

The advantages of the BlueBox 3.0 platform center on 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 are 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.”

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

“The same can be said for the development of domain or zonal controllers within the vehicle — a definite trend for automakers,” he added. “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.

BlueBox Development System
(Source: NXP Semiconductors)

From AVs 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-assistance 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 plan to bring 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 pilot, valet parking, and highway pilot.

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

The issue for OEMs isn’t just 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 importantly, beyond playing with the new capabilities, they must be able to test software by simulating and validating the safety of new functions.

Enhance Performance with BlueBox 3.0
(Source: NXP Semiconductors)

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? Those scenarios are not rare enough to be categorized as corner cases. The vehicle should recognize such common crises swiftly and ask the driver to take over.

But what if the driver doesn’t respond or is suffering a medical emergency? The vehicle must be programmed first to reduce its speed and then to spot an emergency lane and pull over — provided there’s room to do so. If not, the vehicle must be programmed to pursue what seems like the worst possible option: making an emergency stop in the middle of the road.

Hashing out the various scenarios is a necessary exercise and reminds carmakers that developing a highway pilot feature requires more than a processor with a lot of TOPS or AI/ML capabilities. Automakers need a development platform that allows them “to test out safety and build end solutions that are safe,” said Örs.

BlueBox 3.0 versus rivals

“NXP, along with competitors, is transitioning from silicon suppliers to platform suppliers in order to move up the value chain,” said Strategy Analytics’ Fitzgerald. “The BlueBox solution gives developers access to NXP and partners’ 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 already offers similar products, such as the Nvidia DRIVE AGX Developer Kit, which Fitzgerald described as “likely the closest competitor.

Then there is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Ride Platform. Also, Intel and Mobileye are working on a full solution with silicon and software as well as internally developed radar and LiDAR, Fitzgerald said.

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

From development platform to SoCs

Citing a key aspect of BlueBox 3.0, Örs said, “We’re leveraging existing silicon, already available in our portfolio. But [we’re] putting it together at 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 acknowledged that there’s “a lot more horsepower in the BlueBox than likely needed. Our expectation would be that customers are able to build their deployment software [and] improve the efficiency of their end system on the BlueBox. 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 whether 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 Performance
(Source: NXP Semiconductors)

BlueBox 3.0

NXP, however, believes the new BlueBox has the computing horsepower to serve the needs of future vehicles. Örs noted that “the LX2168A has 16 high-performance ARM Cortex-A72 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 BlueBox itself.” He added that S32G allows for ASIL-D compliance, which can act as both a safety co-processor and a 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,” said Örs.

But what makes BlueBox 3.0 stand out is its doubling of PCIe slots to six, from the three offered with the BlueBox 2.0.

Leveraging the terminology “high-performance compute” (HPC) often used in the server domain, Örs explained that NXP is “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 of 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 the company to finalize all the software elements that sit above the basic SDK layer. Those software elements are essential for BlueBox 3.0 to orchestrate data movement among multiple devices on the platform, said Örs.

For example, the data stream input for the cameras goes to the Kalray accelerator for object identification and classification. That data must then be fed into a planner compute module 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,” said Örs. “You need to make sure that the timing of each data packet coming in makes sense. Then it’s S32G that validates that those actuation commands are sane.”

Ecosystem

NXP takes pride in creating a “close knit” partner ecosystem to provide “a quick ramp-up” and “an example that system designers can work from,” said 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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