When you think of mobile semiconductors, one company that’s always top-of-mind is Qualcomm. While its silicon powers many if not most of the world’s phones and tablets, the company has not been content to rest on its laurels. In recent years it has begun to extend its mobile technology into other emergent fields, such as IoT, datacenter edge ML and the topic du jour—automotive. Qualcomm has been pushing into the market over the last several years, with big announcements at both CES 2019 (the launch of its 3rd Gen Digital Cockpit Platform) and CES 2020 (the launch of its Snapdragon Ride platform for autonomous driving). Last week, Qualcomm opened a veritable floodgate of auto updates and announcements at its Automotive Redefined virtual event. There’s a lot to cover—let’s dive in.
Snapdragon Ride gets an upgrade
Qualcomm announced an expansion of its Snapdragon Ride platform portfolio, introducing several “safety-grade” SoCs designed to push driver assistance to the next level in automotive safety level D (ASIL-D) systems. These include new offerings that span the full spectrum of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). New SoCs will enable lower-tier Level 1 and 2 systems to run off a single SoC for added flexibility. Level 1 refers to windshield-mount ADAS solutions, while Level 2 (and 2+) provides active safety and conditional automation. At the top end, new additions to the portfolio promise to improve the performance of fully-autonomous Level 4 systems by combining ADAS SoCs and AI accelerators.
Another critical ingredient of Snapdragon Ride is that it is an open, programmable framework, giving automakers and Tier-1 suppliers alike the ability to build a platform that supports their specific needs. Qualcomm also announced new support for industry-leading software stacks for applications such as parking, driver monitoring and vision perception, which can be mixed and matched by automakers and suppliers as needed. These include:
- Veoneer STACKCO-a solution that integrates Veoneer’s vision perception and driving policy software with Snapdragon Ride
- Valeo Park4U-a scalable software solution for up to Level 4 automatic parking
- Seeing Machines e-DME-a DMS solution that brings Seeing Machines’ optical and imaging systems and acceleration solutions to Snapdragon Ride
4th Gen Snapdragon Digital Cockpit platforms
Additionally, Qualcomm announced the 4th Generation of its Snapdragon Digital Cockpit platforms, which promise to deliver an “enhanced, premium driving experience” for the full gamut of next-generation vehicles. As vehicle cockpits become ever more advanced, they must support in-car assistance, contextual safety, navigation, computer vision and other sensor processing needs. Built on cutting edge 5mm process technology, these new platforms promise to deliver the performance required for these HPC and AI applications. Additionally, Qualcomm designed the platform to support the ongoing industry transition to zonal E/E (electronic/electrical) vehicle architectures.
One of the big selling points for the Snapdragon Digital Cockpit platforms is their scalability. They support all Snapdragon Automotive performance tiers—Performance, Premiere and Paramount—interoperability that promises to simplify automakers’ development and commercialization process. This is a classic Qualcomm move designed to drive volume. The company takes the very same approach to smartphones. Having a full line makes Qualcomm much more attractive to automakers and Tier 1s than those who only support one performance tier. With the Snapdragon platforms, automakers benefit from utilizing the same framework and software architecture across all vehicle tiers—a “harmonized user experience,” in the words of Qualcomm, regardless of vehicle class.
Fireside chat I conducted with Qualcomm’s automotive lead Nakul Duggal at the event
On the inside, the 4th generation platforms include Qualcomm’s 6th Gen Qualcomm Kryo CPU, its Hexagon processor, a multi-core Qualcomm AI Engine, the 6th Gen Qualcomm Adreno GPU and a Qualcomm Spectra Image Signal Processor. Who said you couldn’t have it all? Leveraging this significant compute power, the SoC supports pre-integrated WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2 WiFi connectivity, along with the pre-integrated 5G support necessary to enable Telematics and C-V2X (vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-cloud or vehicle-to-environment communication).
Along with the announcement of the 4th Gen, Qualcomm also shared a progress report on the momentum of the 3rd Gen Snapdragon Digital Cockpit platforms, now available to customers. The company says it has racked up wins with leading global Tier-1 suppliers and scored digital cockpit deals with 20 of the 25 global automakers. As the industry’s first-announced scalable AI solution, this success is not all that surprising. But also, I believe it speaks to the success of Qualcomm’s tiered approach—it’s hard for others to compete with that scalability. Qualcomm anticipates an acceleration of 3rd Gen adoption through 2021.
Snapdragon Automotive Wireless Platforms gain momentum
Qualcomm also shared an update on the momentum of its Snapdragon 4G and 5G Automotive platforms. It’s safe to say that connectivity is ultimately the key to enabling safe, road-ready next-generation vehicles across all levels of autonomy. 5G and 4G LTE, and the high throughput and low latency they promise to deliver will enable tomorrow’s vehicles to connect to the cloud, other cars and the environment to provide the utmost safety and autonomy along with immersive in-vehicle experiences.
Here’s where Qualcomm’s years of research and development of 5G technology (and 4G before it) gives it an edge. It currently holds the title of #1 semiconductor supplier in telematics and wireless car connectivity. Whether it’s 5G, DSDA, Gigabit LTE, C-V3X or Qualcomm’s Car-to-Cloud services, practically all major auto manufacturers of connected vehicles utilize Qualcomm’s offerings. Qualcomm is the undisputed leader in this realm, and it’s hard to see how any of its potential competitors could unseat it from the throne.
Lastly, Qualcomm made several joint announcements with partners at the event. First, in conjunction with Alps Alpine Co., Ltd., it lifted the curtain on ViewPose, a camera-based device for sensing and positioning. A joint effort, as part of Alps Alpine’s 5G software license agreement with Qualcomm, the device utilizes the Snapdragon Automotive 5G platform (with support for Multi-Frequency Global Navigation Satellite System, or MF-GNSS) and Qualcomm’s 3rd Gen Snapdragon Digital Cockpit platform. The companies say that these components, paired with Qualcomm’s Vision Enhanced Precise Positioning (VEPP) software, can accurately determine position and altitude in practically all environments (such as parking garages, tunnels and other locales where GNSS reception is limited). Moreover, it can purportedly do so with an update rate equivalent to the camera frame rate.
Next, while it may not constitute actual news, Qualcomm and General Motors shared that they are continuing their long-standing relationship, which at this point reaches back past several cellular generations—over ten years. Together, the two companies outfit GM’s vehicles with Qualcomm’s technology—digital cockpits, telematics systems, and ADAS, leveraging much of the technology already referenced in this column. Currently, GM is deploying Qualcomm’s 3rd generation Snapdragon Automotive Cockpit platforms inside its automotive fleet. For one, the new Buick GL8 MVP comes equipped with C-V2X technology powered by Qualcomm (though, as of now, it is only available in China).
Last, Qualcomm and Amazon announced that they have integrated Alexa Custom Assistant into Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Automotive Cockpit Platforms. The new integration features in the Alexa Automotive Software Development Kit on both the 3rdand just-announced 4th Generation of the Snapdragon Automotive Cockpit platforms. Essentially, the offering’s purpose is to allow Tier-1 suppliers and automakers to construct their own customizable in-vehicle intelligent assistants for voice-based cabin assistance. The system utilizes Qualcomm’s Smart Audio Platform and Voice Assist technologies to cancel out road noise and provide voice identification for personality-awareness.
Qualcomm continues to prove its leadership and prowess beyond its traditional purview of smartphones and tablets. Between its 4G and 5G technology, Snapdragon Ride and the Snapdragon Automotive Cockpit platforms, it’s hard to imagine how one even couldbuild a connected car without turning to some piece of Qualcomm technology, even if they wanted to. And not only is Qualcomm delivering robust solutions, but it is also expanding its auto ecosystem through partnerships and integrations with the likes of Amazon Alexa, Alps Alpine and General Motors. If you ask me, Qualcomm could soon be as ubiquitous in next-generation connected vehicles as it is in smartphones and tablets today. It pays to have a killer patent portfolio and licensing division.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.