Post-iPhone, Imagination doubles down on core automotive market

Imagination Technologies has launched its latest automotive graphics processor unit (GPU) IP design, the PowerVR Series8XT-A. Imagination says the surrounding software, tools and support package will give the technology a 10-year lifespan for adopters.

The GPU design can be licensed directly by chipmakers, or by automotive OEMs (which can then commission a chip partner to build the silicon). It makes the expected performance claims, but a big part of the launch marketing concerns its safety features. Automotive buyers are extremely sensitive to such issues, and the ISO 26262 and IEC 61508 compliance is laid out in the extensive documentation.

The company is one of the automotive old guard. Imagination claims that it has over a 50% market share by volume, thanks to customers shipping tens of millions based on its IP – with the most extensive use being in in-vehicle infotainment (IVI), digital cockpit dashboard instrument clusters, and ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems).

The new designs are being targeted at increasingly complex ADAS systems, which are evolving to support semi-autonomous and then fully autonomous features. But despite these seismic changes, the automotive industry remains conservative, and is looking to established vendors. While newer entrants like Nvidia have carved out a slice of the market in some use cases, this is definitely not a market open to start-ups. Tesla is trying to go its own way, with regard to silicon, but the rest are largely sticking with what they know.

Imagination Technologies’ CEO Leo Li said: “The automotive industry is rapidly transitioning to assisted driving and fully autonomous vehicles. PowerVR has extensive experience in the automotive semiconductor market and as the requirements for power and performance continue to evolve, PowerVR is committed to remaining ahead of the curve. Imagination is excited to deliver this package that allows the growing group of automotive players to address the complex requirements of this market.”

The company cites Denso, Renesas, Socionext, and Texas Instruments, as flagship customers, but the company claims that its PowerVR package does lower the barrier to entry for new players – something that we don’t think is really the case, as automakers don’t want to buy from companies they don’t know and don’t yet trust.

As for technical details, the Series8XT-A is based on Imagination’s Furian architecture, and is the automotive variant of the Series8XT family. New hardware and software fault detection features have been introduced, which Imagination says provides better recovery for the GPU should a problem arise. Error-Correcting Code (ECC) and Logic Built-in Self-Test (LBIST) are prominent too, as well as hardware virtualization to facilitate multiple separate concurrent applications, running in their own containers.

The more interesting addition is the Neural Network Accelerators (NNAs) that Imagination is trotting out to compliment the GPUs. The PowerVR Series2NX NNA is intended for use in SAE Level 3 to Level 5 functions, ranging from driver monitoring and gaze tracking, through to drivable path analysis and road user detection.

These AI-based functions are integral to the next-gen autonomous features, and Imagination is hoping to sell both the GPU and machine learning silicon that will power the necessary chips. While the Series8XT-A is available to license now, the NNAs are going to be launching in 2019.  Given the long lead times of the automotive industry, ranging between 3-5 years, that provides a likely timeframe for when these designs begin appearing in vehicles.

Of course, Imagination has some serious competition in this market, and one of the largest automotive silicon providers, NXP, has got some reshuffling to do. After Qualcomm’s attempted takeover was abandoned, NXP now has to refocus on expanding up the stack, moving from basic microcontrollers and application processors, to rival the likes of Nvidia’s Drive platform – the extremely power central computer systems that Nvidia envisions powering the bulk of self-driving applications within a vehicle.

Qualcomm’s $44bn purchase could have heavily shaken up the market. Qualcomm had essentially realized that the smartphone market was limiting, and wanted to expand its smaller forays into the automotive market. When that deal was announced, back in November 2016, Qualcomm was expecting to pay $47bn for the fifth-largest non-memory chip maker in the world. The price fluctuated somewhat, but Qualcomm was definitely keen to diversify its smartphone-centric portfolio. It did have Snapdragon Automotive designs, but NXP brought a whole lot more to the table than just Snapdragon-powered IVI systems.

Shortly after the deal was announced, Qualcomm launched the Drive Data Platform, a sensor fusion technology that would let Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820Am SoC process all the sensor inputs in a vehicle, and use its Neural Processing Engine (NPE) to make decisions.

So while Qualcomm will likely keep plugging away at the automotive sector, it is not going to be able to use NXP as a launching point. Similarly, NXP loses out on using Qualcomm’s SoCs as starting points for those sensor fusion applications, which would have been combined with NXP’s Layerscape processors.

Currently, NXP’s BlueBox platform is the core of the advanced automotive portfolio. BlueBox is a modular architecture that lets customers build their own stacks according to their needs, rather than having to pick a chip that might not be quite right. Unveiled back in May 2016, before the Qualcomm announcement, NXP was keen to stress that a major advantage of modularity was that OEMs could combine chips from other vendors into their designs.

The BlueBox front has been very quiet in the passing years, likely because of the impact that Qualcomm’s acquisition would have had. It would have given NXP the large central processor needed for these autonomous functions, in Snapdragon. Now, it needs to either create its own, or partner and license a design. Its main options are Qualcomm, Nvidia, and also Intel’s Mobileye EyeQ range.

So while Imagination is trying to target the upper layers, those big SoCs, NXP is looking more at vision and radar applications, as well as a machine vision chip – likely building on the Cognivue IP that it acquired when NXP bought Freescale for $11.8bn. The product names to keep an eye out for are the S32 family, with variants for radar (S32R), vision (S32V), and gateways (S32G). These have been years in development, and NXP is getting closer to finalizing them.