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Altera's automotive aspirations

Posted: 17 Mar 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Altera? automotive electronics? Robert Blake?

This year Altera Corp. is targeting the automotive electronics space, and stepping up efforts to supply automotive OEMs with the unique ability to build scalable platforms for emerging applications that will improve comfort and convenience, driver assistance, and infotainment and communications in the car. Robert Blake, VP of the automotive and consumer business unit, spoke with EE Times Asia about their automotive solutions.

Blake identified a basic concern in the automotive space about "how committed is Altera to making sure that the company can support the top tier companies with the kinds of products, services and qualities that these companies would expect in order to be successful in the automotive end market" . He then explained that "For more than 25 years Altera has had a strong history in supporting key and military companies with very stringent requirements for product operational capabilities as well as quality levels," and he said that "fits very well also in the automotive space."

Another concern is car safety, but Blake pointed that the automotive applications they focus on are not primarily about under-the-hood safety. While features such as lane departure warning "will be aimed at enhancing the driver experience and making it easier, it is not primarily involved in direct safety operation of the vehicle." Blake explained that their automotive applications fall under three categories: driver assistance, providing comfort, convenience and vehicle controls, and infotainment and communications (Figure 1). These are the three categories where Altera sees a rapidly growing market.

To cater to these applications, Altera offers a range of products including programmable solutions, a development platform, and an evaluation kit. They also offer automotive-grade products to fit both high- and low-end requirements. Blake explained that of the quality requirements TS-16949 is a key automotive specification, and "all Altera's products as well as our manufacturers, are all compliant with this requirement." Blake added that "Altera is a quality manufacturer who is ready to fully engage in production quantities" in the automotive space.

Blake also discussed Altera's investment in the automotive space "On a year to year basis, we've increased our automotive spend at a much faster rate and the reason for that is we see that the overall automotive electronics space has a very high growth rate." He said that "while it's growing off a small base today we think that it has a very large upside opportunity for us."

Programmable solutions
Altera's automotive grade solutions come in three families, as shown in Table 1.

Blake explained that the Max CPLDs "are at the lowest end of complexity, they are low density devices used for control and interfacing."

At the next level of complexity would be the Cyclone FPGA. "Integrating the NIOS processor and doing graphical type functions could be easily done in the Cyclone class of devices," according to Blake. The Cyclone FPGA products are suitable for graphics and control applications. They enable automotive OEMs to be flexible up to the last minute to accommodate feature needs that are changing faster than typical automotive design cycles. It is also possible to create a single platform that you can use for multiple product lines. Pre-verified intellectual property (IP) is available for Cyclone III FPGAs to easily support all of the latest automotive networking standards such as controller area network (CAN), media-oriented system transport (MOST), local interconnect network (LIN), and FlexRay. Automotive products using Cyclone III FPGAs can also be updated in the field after the car is sold. Abundant multipliers and memory in Cyclone III FPGAs can be used to meet the growing appetite for high-quality video in infotainment features. Fast parallel configuration and automotive temperature support of up to 125C (junction) enable Cyclone III FPGAs to meet stringent automotive system requirements.

One benefit offered by Cyclone III FPGA solutions is that they are obsolescence-proof. Blake explained that "if I had a design in Cyclone I in 0.13?m it would be very easy to port the embedded NIOS processor and peripheral functions to the 65nm product because I could simply recompile the functions into the newer technology." So unlike an ASIC design which may become obsolete or increase in production cost towards the end of life, the anti-obsolescence of programmable logic makes it possible to "take an old design and migrate it very easily to a newer product with minimal engineering effort." Blake added that "customers in that automotive space, they like that story very much."

The Hardcopy ASICs are the most complex of Altera's automotive solutions. Blake described the HardCopy ASICs as "integrating many millions of gates." And that they "would be the heart of the gateway type system, the central control system inside a modern automobile," handling infotainment, GPS, fixed navigation, driver assist, and active safety functions. The biggest advantage offered by HardCopy is the system development methodology enabled by its design flow. Here, Stratix II FPGAs are used to prototype the device. The flexibility of Stratix II FPGAs allows you to create a single platform that you can use for multiple product lines. Once a product line is ready for production, you can quickly turn the design into an automotive-grade HardCopy II ASIC. The instant-on nature of ASICs also add to the ability of HardCopy II devices to meet stringent automotive system requirements.

Navigation Display app
One of the strongest areas in automotive applications today is the Navigation Display application (Figure 2). "More and more cars are seeing navigation systems, whether portable or built-in, and Altera products are featured in both types of devices," Blake reported. "The main drive has been that customers are interested in building products and deploying those quickly in the marketplaces, with advanced graphic features, and to which you can easily and very quickly add new capabilities," he explained.

Cyclone III is very suitable for Navigation Systems, as shown in Figure 3. Cyclone 3, with it's embedded Nios II processor, "is doing the main graphics driving for the display." Blake said. It supports in a single platform multiple screen sizes and product features. It is obsolescence proof because of the possibility of upgrading the technology to newer technologies as they come. And using a Cyclone III FPGA for high-performance graphics processing costs less than using an ASSP or DSP device.

PARIS platform
A major component of Altera's automotive effort is the PARIS Development Platform.

The name "PARIS" comes from Platform ASSP Replacement Infotainment System, and it is a microcontroller development system for using FPGAs, particularly Altera's Stratix II FPGA.

The platform comes complete with all the hardware and software needed to develop an automotive solution for driver assistance, head-units and navigation systems. Altera worked with more than 12 intellectual property (IP) providers for the system, which includes a pre-programmed board featuring the Stratix II FPGA, a WVGA touch-screen TFT display, reference designs, software stacks and drivers, cabling, power supply, and resource CDs with documentation.

It is designed to enable easy integration of future IP and facilitate fast and efficient development of applications. Also, the PARIS platform features a scalable framework which offers up to 50 percent less development time and system cost than other development processes.

Human-machine interface
The Nios II Evaluation kit is based on Cyclone hardware architecture. It is a very low cost embedded solution platform that integrates a Nios II embedded soft processor with a touch screen display that enables the user to see the capability for graphic and human-machine interface. This is a function that's often targeted at automotive applications.

Technology impact
When asked about how popular programmable logic devices are for automotive applications, Blake said that "programmable logic is a good fit in these automotive applications because of its I/O flexibility and performance. This is a very key reason why we are seeing the adoption of programmable logic devices in the automotive space." And so yes they are already popular and becoming even more so.

One source of popularity also, is in the applications enabled by the devices. One advantage to be gained from automotive electronics is already making a difference in Blake's daily life. "I find great pleasure in the rear-seat entertainment system," Blake shared. He has three children and road trips are pleasant now that "there's an entertainment system to keep them happy while they're on road trips by giving them not only audio, but also video and an interface to use games," he explained. "Those are some key areas that I've seen that use Altera products."

- EE Times-Asia

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