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Auto Market Assault

Actel Announces Progress

With today’s automobiles acting as mass-produced rolling showcases of electronic technology, winning sockets in automotive electronics applications has become a major goal of just about every semiconductor company.  The draw is enormous.  In many countries, consumers pour a huge chunk of their monthly budgets into automobiles, and the percentage of that money that flows into electronics is also rapidly increasing.  We have reached a sweet spot in electronic technology capabilities where the number of new, useful features that can be added to automobiles with advanced electronics is exploding. 

FPGA and programmable logic vendors are attracted to automobile applications (and automotive engineers are attracted to FPGAs) for a variety of good reasons.  Programmability offers the potential for easy and inexpensive field upgrades and fixes, the ability to create multiple product variants with a single piece of hardware, and the flexibility to qualify and inventory a single piece of silicon for a large number of applications in the auto’s bill of materials (BOM). 

This week, Actel announced a new qualification of its ProASIC3 family for automotive applications – AEC-Q100 Grade 2 and Grade 1.  Even though the automotive industry represents a potentially lucrative semiconductor market, it also has one of the most difficult and complex sets of qualification standards in the industry – rivaling and sometimes even surpassing standards for military and aerospace applications.  The significance of Actel’s announcement is that their ProASIC3 devices can now be used in a wide variety of automotive applications, including many “under the hood” sockets that previously were unavailable to FPGAs. 

The “Grade” designations are for automotive ambient temperature ranges Grade 0 = +150C, Grade 1 = +125C, Grade 2 = +105C, Grade 3 = +85C, and Grade 4 = +70C.  The temperature figures can be confusing because suppliers may quote (or qualify) either ambient or junction temperatures for automotive products.  Generally, junction temperatures run 10C -25C higher than ambient.  The low power consumption (particularly the static power performance) of the Actel devices help to combat reliability problems related to high junctions temperatures which can, in the extreme case, lead to thermal runaway.

Certainly Actel’s announcement does not represent the first foray of FPGAs or CPLDs into AEC-Q100 qualification.  Altera, Xilinx, and Lattice Semiconductor all boast FPGA lines with AEC-Q100 qualification.  Counting CPLDs, programmable logic devices have been AEC-Q100 qualified for years.  Even the question of whether this is the first “Grade 1” qualification of an FPGA is little more than a semantic exercise for FPGA marketing professionals.  What is significant about Actel’s announcement, however, is that an additional barrier to the penetration of programmable logic into our automobiles has been removed. 

Actel’s devices always bring a unique value proposition to the table.  Because their ProASIC3 (as well as their mixed-signal Fusion) devices use flash cells to hold the configuration, they have certain advantages such as non-volatility (they are live at power-up and do not require configuration at system start time), low static power consumption, and increased immunity to transient configuration errors such as neutron-induced single-event upsets (SEUs).  The tradeoff for these features is generally lower performance and density compared with SRAM-type FPGAs, and because flash technology is more difficult on the process side, they lag by a couple of process nodes behind mainstream CMOS logic. 

For parts of the automotive market, however, these are attractive tradeoffs.  The low cost, small footprint, low power consumption, and non-volatility make flash FPGAs a very good fit in many parts of the auto where other FPGAs might not work well.  The Grade 1 qualification allows these devices into many safety-critical and “under the hood” areas in addition to FPGAs’ traditional automotive strongholds such as infotainment.

In many markets, success of semiconductors depends on far more than the device alone.  Supply chain considerations, qualification, and proof of prior success in an area make up a second leg of the triangle.  Along with the certification, Actel announced that they have won design slots from Magna Electronics in their automotive vision systems, and that Delphi will be using the devices in engine control modules.  Both of these applications take advantage of the unique properties of flash-based programmable logic.

Once these devices get a foothold under the hood, we would also expect a new crop of application-specific IP, development kits, reference designs, and prototyping boards to emerge.  It is with the introduction of these remaining elements that the triangle of new market penetration will be complete, and we would expect a rapid ramp in adoption of the technology.  At first, when only silicon is available, the innovators and early-adopters (and in the automotive world, these are few and far-between) kick the tires on the new technology.

The certification of ProASIC3 has us wondering if and when Actel’s Fusion devices will follow the same course.  Given the plethora of automotive applications that involve analog sensors and other legacy components that speak languages other than binary, Fusion would seem an ideal platform for automotive integration.  We wouldn’t be too surprised to see that platform getting automotive qualified as well.

Go to any FPGA vendor’s website these days and you’ll find a major section dedicated to automotive applications.  With Actel diving under the hood, we may expect other vendors to answer with new applications of their own.  The modern auto is no longer a collection of disparate electronic technologies driving in close formation.  The proliferation of networked and integrated systems in cars makes an ideal target for FPGAs´ flexibility in areas like networking, embedded processing, digital signal processing, and general system-level glue.

Traditionally, the automotive electronics space has been somewhat laggardly in its adoption of new technologies – the liability concerns and massive international regulation of the industry often keeping technical advances coming at a veritable snail’s pace.  Because of this, programmable logic is really just at the beginning of the kind of heyday in the automotive industry that it experienced in prior decades in industries such as network infrastructure.  While we’ve marveled in the past at the number of microprocessors in a typical new automobile, we may well be making similar remarks soon about the number of FPGAs to be found there.

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