Q&A with Qualcomm’s Automotive Honcho Nakul Duggal

Article By : Junko Yoshida

Qualcomm held this week its own virtual event — dedicated to the automotive sector — to pitch itself as a solid, trusted partner for car OEMs and Tier 1s.

Qualcomm held its own virtual event this week aimed directly at the automotive sector to pitch itself as a solid, trusted partner for car OEMs and Tier 1s.

Qualcomm’s tailwind lately is coming from the confluence of the 5G, AI, ADAS and car-to-cloud trends. Car OEMs are desperate to catch up with the new “software-defined vehicle” model, believing it can help them generate post-sale revenues from software upgrades for new apps, bells, whistles, and services over a vehicle’s lifespan.

The company has spent a lot of time and effort getting to where it is now. Twenty years ago, Qualcomm’s initial foray into automotive was connectivity, which made it a player in the in-vehicle infotainment market. Since then, the company’s role has substantially grown. During the virtual event, Qualcomm discussed its lead in China’s Cellular V2X and AI in digital cockpit which has thus far garnered design wins from more than 20 carmakers.

Qualcomm also announced an extended relationship with General Motors. Under the agreement, GM is replacing its current ADAS system with one based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Ride Platform. Qualcomm declined to reveal when it might get into GM’s cars. Nonetheless, the GM design win is a shot in the arm for Qualcomm, long viewed as a laggard in the ADAS market. Qualcomm claimed that numerous unnamed OEMs are working on Ride-based ADAS systems.

Click the image above to enlarge. (Source: Qualcomm)

‘Open and Scalable’
Qualcomm executives made a concerted effort to pitch “open and scalable” as a new mantra in promoting both the Snapdragon automotive cockpit and ride platforms.

The Ride Platform, for example, comes with pre-integrated and pre-validated software ranging from a perception stack and driving policy to parking assist and driver monitoring. The software is hardened and optimized by leading industry partners such as Arriver (a software unit of Veoneer), Valeo and Seeing Machines, to fit into the platform, Qualcomm said.

Click the image to enlarge. (Source: Qualcomm)

With “the automotive sector evolving at an incredible speed,” a key trend cited by Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm’s president and CEO-elect, Qualcomm believes having an open platform with qualified software from key partners — rather than spending time developing its own software — is crucial. This remark came off as a subtle dig at Mobileye, Qualcomm’s competitor.

Qualcomm is delegating to OEMs these scalable roadmaps integrated with commercial software. The goal is for OEMs to implement them swiftly while Qualcomm, also, “runs like hell,” said Nakul Duggal, senior vice president & GM, automotive, at Qualcomm Technologies.

Nakul Duggal (Source: Qualcomm)

In an exclusive interview with EE Times, Duggal stressed that “We work with partners with hardened commercialized solutions that are actually tested with miles on the road, across various parts of the world.” Duggal underscored the importance of software written to a safety standard. “We are not using something that just works in a demo.” Qualcomm offers OEMs solutions deployable right away, because they “already meet NHTSA and NCAP requirements,” he explained.

Partnership is also essential to the Snapdragon cockpit platform. “We are one of the few companies who will say we are very happy to work with Google on Google automotive services,” said Duggal. Snapdragon also works with Alexa. Citing Alexa’s popularity, he noted, “We are able to integrate that into a DSP.”

While styling itself as an “alternative” to competitors such as Mobileye, Nvidia and NXP Semiconductors, Qualcomm projects humility in its approach, and seriousness about tackling the automotive market.

“Transportation is a complicated global business. So, our approach has always been, we want to work with partners, whether it is in a specific industry, whether it’s in a specific technology, a specific region,” he stressed. “We want to bring the best solution into our platforms. And that’s why our platforms are always very open.”

Qualcomm also emphasized that it isn’t in the automotive market for the sake of generating shock and awe about self-driving vehicles. “We are in a business of scale, not in a business of headlines,” stressed Duggal. This remark appears also aimed at Mobileye which has committed to launching consumer AV in 2025.

5nm SoC coming
For ADAS, Qualcomm sees Level 2+ as a sweet spot. But it is also making its Snapdragon Ride Platform truly scale. Announced at the conference is that the Ride Platform is now scaled down to New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) Level 1, ideal for NCAP windshield-mounted ADAS.

With this addition, Snapdragon Ride supports the spectrum of ADAS/AD functionality— ranging from Level 1, to active safety with conditional automation (Level 2/2+), to fully autonomous driving systems (Level 4).

Qualcomm is offering SoC platforms built on 5nm process technology, opening the door to both standalone and customization opportunities. Snapdragon Ride now scales from 10 tera operations per second (TOPS) for windshield-mount ADAS cameras in a sub-5W power budget to over 700 TOPS for fully automated driving, the company claimed.

Duggal said that samples of 5nm SoCs (available both for ADAS and digital cockpit) were in the hands of “some OEMs” since late last year. Broader sampling will start this spring, he added.

Asked when chips go into mass production, Duggal noted, “Earliest customers that we are talking about are actually 2023, but probably more typically late 2023 or early 2024.”

Blurring lines between digital cockpit and ADAS
As carmakers go deeper into vehicle electrification, they hope to seize “an opportunity to move the car architecture from traditional combustion engine architecture to an electric vehicle skateboard,” said Duggal. As they depart from legacy systems, they are embracing a new Electrical/Electronics (E/E) architecture.

Click the image to enlarge: (Source: Qualcomm)

Gone are the days of adding a discrete MCU to enable a specific feature at a specific end point. The auto industry is already forsaking an overload of discrete MCUs for an architecture run by domain controllers. Some vendors are looking at a zonal approach. Carmakers will eventually transition towards “central compute,” Duggal noted during his keynote.

In our interview, Duggal said that central compute domains “are now running on an SoC fabric.” He described it as “a universal, safety-grade fabric.”

As a result, building blocks inside an SoC for ADAS or in a digital cockpit share a lot in common. Both SoCs support a GPU (or multi-core GPUs), many DSPs and accelerators, explained Duggal. “Then, you put a software scaffold on top,” he noted. “This starts with a hypervisor, supporting multiple containers, multiple virtualized partitions.”

Then, where to run which software or app is up to each carmaker. For example, a car OEM might be running DMS on the digital cockpit but later decides to move the DMS on ADAS SoC running a L2+ system. “We can support that,” said Duggal. “No problem.”

What’s happening is that “the line is getting blurred between the application and the domain,” Duggal observed. “To allow that line to be blurred and still be able to have a consistent architecture, you need that common hardware fabric underneath.”

How will Qualcomm win?
By teaming with many partners, from Veoneer to GM, Qualcomm is in the automotive market to win.

Acknowledging that the world’s largest mobile chip vendor was never the first to enter, let alone, dominate the automotive sector, Duggal cited examples in various industries. Qualcomm never thought it impossible to pry open an ADAS market apparently cornered by Mobileye.

“I think Mobileye is a fantastic company. I think they have done a tremendous job in computer vision and now in AI and they’ve solved very complicated problems,” he said. While crediting Mobileye, Duggal noted, “The way we think about it is that technology is democratic. Of all these solutions we are talking about today, there is nothing here that I can say that this is something that is an unsolvable problem.” Duggal went on, “We understand the problem, we know what it takes to solve it and we also understand the time constraints within which the problem must be solved. So that’s why we partner.”

A second imperative is to understand what customers need. “Our customers, especially in the automotive space, like choices. They don’t like to be locked down into just one solution. That’s the first thing I’ve learned in the automotive business. You watch all the choices your customers have and make sure that you are choice number one.”

Finally, perhaps more important, “In the case of the ADAS opportunity, automakers want something that they can ultimately be responsible for,” observed Duggal. As more cars get automated, liability issues nag at carmakers. Duggal said, “It’s either the driver/the owner of the vehicle or the car manufacturer who will be ultimately responsible for safety and security of the car. No third party will be coming in to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to take responsibility.’”

In this light, transparency becomes essential, Duggal said. “Carmakers have to know what they are putting into their vehicles.” In his opinion, any solution inside black box is a sealed coffin.

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