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2 August 2022

NXP teams up with Foxconn for car connectivity as auto chip shortage eases

Netherlands-based chipmaker NXP Semiconductors has started working with Taiwan’s Hon Hai Technology Group (Foxconn) to develop compute and connectivity platforms for software-defined electric vehicles, aiming towards increasing levels of autonomous driving. Foxconn, best known for its role assembling Apple’s iPhones, will build automotive electronic components around NXP’s chip portfolio to enhance functions required for electrification, moving on to connectivity in and around the car, leading ultimately towards automated driving.

This amounts to starting work on non-driving related functions such as secure access via smartphone based key credentials and fine control of EV functions, before embracing V2X connectivity for accessing roadside infrastructure and other vehicles to implement advanced driver assistance and progress towards fuller autonomy.

This comes at a disruptive time for the global automotive industry during the historic transition from internal combustion engines to electric propulsion, amid the more transient shortage of chips that has nonetheless exacted a severe toll on production as the world emerges from the deprivations of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That shortage has primarily impacted commodity chips now required in large numbers for legacy functions inside the vehicles, rather than the advanced platforms being targeted for new use cases, EV deployment and autonomy, as with this partnership between NXPO and Foxconn. Yet the shortage has retarded the EV transition because EVs contain on average twice as many chips as diesel or petrol vehicles, around 2,000 compared with 1,000.

However, the global chip shortage has been easing for a few months now, with Mercedes Benz and BMW among automakers recently indicating they were now returning to full manufacturing capacity as supply of semiconductors catches up with demand after well over a year of crippling shortages. This is helping focus attention on new functions that call for even more chips to be embedded in vehicles, leading towards a situation widely anticipated by 2030 when they collectively account for 20% of a typical vehicle’s bill of materials.

Foxconn has already incorporated NXP’s i.MX application processors and software-based radio platform in digital cockpit systems, which integrate the traditionally distinct infotainment, navigation and control systems around multiple screens designed to avoid drivers being overloaded with data. The first stage of the new partnership will target specialist chips for EVs needed to extract the maximum range from a given battery by measuring remaining charge capacity more accurately, as well as optimize consumption during driving. It will then move on to connectivity, where the focus will be on Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) in and around the vehicle for infotainment, as well as secure access via smartphones.

UWB is a shorter-range wireless protocol than WiFi or even Bluetooth when operating at very high frequencies, enabling it to span a wide band of several GHz. This allows it to scan a local area continuously for much more precise location of objects to within a few cms, an order of magnitude better than most other radio protocols or GPS. The immediate automotive interest lies in secure entry, via traditional key fobs or smartphones which increasingly are UWB-capable. This ability to pinpoint the location of the device attempting to gain entry or start the engine brings prospect of improved security and protection against relay attacks used to access cars by regenerating the signal from a fob inside an owner’s house.

For this reason, NXP Semiconductors has extended its UWB portfolio with an automotive-specific UWB IC, which will feature in the Foxconn partnership. “NXP’s longstanding expertise and leadership in automotive, its innovative products and its laser focus on safety, security and quality provide the foundation for the collaboration we are activating today,” said Young Liu, Foxconn chairman.

Autonomous driving will then be the third focal area for collaboration, starting by making use of NXP’s radar technology. Radar is one of the three principal sensor technologies required for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous driving, the others being video cameras, and light detection and ranging (LiDAR), whose strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Radar and camera sensors are most widely deployed in current vehicles capable of autonomous control up to Level 2, that is where drivers are still required to be at the wheel but able to defer to the vehicle for steering, and speed control through acceleration and braking.

Radars are very good at measuring speed and distance, with some immunity to environmental impediments, but with no ability to capture color information for detailed detection of objects and being poor at assessing angles accurately. Cameras are good at color detection but easily discombobulated by environmental artefacts such as bright light, fog or heavy rain. Light detection and ranging (Lidar) scores by enabling highly accurate resolution of angles during motion in all dimensions, with ability to detect free spaces and maintain a real-time map of the changing environment around the vehicle.

There is also the emerging option of 4D imaging radar. In the automotive context, the first three Ds are distance, direction and relative velocity as measured by the Doppler effect, whereby apparent wavelengths issued by a receding object are lengthened and of an approaching one shortened, because the object is moving as the waveform is being created and emitted. 4D radar adds vertical information, which allows in-car computers to reconstruct changing images in real time at high resolution. This is an essential step for progressing from Level 2 autonomous driving to Level 3 where control can be passed to the system providing the driver is still on hand, and then Level 4, when the driver can hand over almost completely and literally take a back seat.

NXP will be seeking to integrate 4D radar with various aspects of V2X in collaboration with other parties that specialize in specific areas there, maintaining its focus on electrification. As Europe’s largest maker of chips for automotive, NXP has been at the center of the continent’s often anguished debate over the relative merits of the two competing V2X technologies.

Wireless Watch has covered this debate in some detail before, but briefly the two contenders have been the 3GPP’s Cellular V2X (C-V2X), and the IEEE’s ITS-G5, alternatively described as DSRC in the USA, and derived from the same 802.11 foundations as WiFi.

ITS-G5 came first and so enjoyed early mover advantage, becoming established in the USA and also continental Europe. But as C-V2X has matured with a sidelink capability for bypassing the public cellular network to communicate with local infrastructure, it has evolved some technical advantages, including potentially lower latency. It is also better placed for integration with public cellular networks, which many vehicles access anyway for infotainment and navigation alongside GPS, especially to incorporate real-time traffic updates.

As a result, C-V2X has started to oust ITS-G5, especially in the USA, where in November the FCC decided to migrate from DSRC to C-V2X for V2X communication and donate 30 MHz of the spectrum at 5.9 GHz, which was previously entirely dedicated DSRC.

Meanwhile, the European Commission had previously been leaning towards mandations of ITS-G5 for so called cooperative intelligent transport systems (C-ITS), but then after kickback from some automotive makers among others, adopted an agnostic approach in its Delegated Act in 2019 based on the ITS Directive 2010/40 EU which defines requirements for C-ITS stations and services.

NXP was involved in that debate and welcomed the Act in the hope this would clear the way for C-ITS technology to be deployed across Europe. In the event the debate is still rumbling on in Europe, with those automotive giants such as Volkswagen, which originally sided with ITS-G5, continuing to pursue that.

However, they have to support C-V2X on vehicles made for the Chinese market, where an early decision was made to adopt that and avoid the WiFi alternative altogether. That decisive move has helped China become a leader in deployment of V2X generally, with a target for 50% of all new cars to have it pre-installed by 2025. By then we anticipate around 80% of all V2X vehicles will be C-V2X rather than ITS-G5, as other major automotives follow the lead of Ford, which flipped behind the technology as early as January 2019. Indeed, a number have come into the C-V2X fold, while not necessarily abandoning ITS-G5 altogether. These include European makers Audi, BMW, PSA and SEAT, as well as Japan’s Nissan.

Of major chipmakers, Qualcomm has been squarely behind C-V2X almost from the start. Some others still support both, such as Taiwan’s Unex Technologies, in a dual-mode V2X platform based on the Craton2/Pluton2 chipset from fabless semiconductor firm AutoTalks.