By Eric Auchard
LONDON (Reuters) - Driverless car features are moving closer to mass-market production, with British chip designer ARM introducing the first in a new line of safety-hardened processors for building features such as automated collision avoidance into vehicles.
The new line of AE, or "Automotive Enhanced", application processors lets chipmakers design chips with security features that allow autonomous cars to meet the toughest safety requirements, the company said on Wednesday, as it unveiled its first autonomous-class processor, the Cortex-A76AE.
It expects the first cars using the processor to hit the roads in 2020.
Existing ARM customers working on autonomous driving platforms include Nvidia, NXP, Renesas, Samsung's Harman business, and Siemens Mentor unit, among others.
ARM-based chips are used in 85 percent of car entertainment systems and two-thirds of collision detection processor chips.
Carmakers and their suppliers want to be able to run many different applications with varying levels of safety requirements, from none to the highest levels of automotive certification, all within the same chip, Lakshmi Mandyam, vice president of ARM’s automotive business, said in an interview.
"Having this headroom and flexibility is going to drive a lot of innovation and new applications" for the auto industry, the ARM executive said, referring to new ARM-based chips built by customers.
In semiconductor terms, ARM designs the chassis on which hardware and software makers can build autonomous driving applications to run everything from car brakes and steering to collision detection and vehicle entertainment systems.
Cortex AE chips are optimised to be built with the most advanced 7-nanometer circuit wiring, ARM said, which multiplies the number of features that can be crammed into the same space.
The company says its new Silicon on Chip (SoC) designs will require as a little as a few dozen watts of energy rather than the kilowatts now needed in chips to power driverless car prototypes.
Customers can also use the same designs to run other, less safety-critical features like infotainment that can be improved via over-the-air software updates.
This "split-lock" design - combining locked features that can't be changed and unlocked features that can - can share portions of the same chip, promising higher performance and less energy use, which is key for electric-battery powered autonomous vehicles.
ARM's arch-rival Intel Corp has been working on a roadmap to deliver its first generation of chips for fully autonomous cars starting in 2020, based around its acquisition of collision-detection software maker Mobileye a year ago.
Two years ago ARM was bought by Japan's Softbank, which is encouraging it to invest more heavily in emerging markets for autos, industrial equipment and other embedded devices that go beyond its core computer and phone franchises.
(Reporting by Eric Auchard; Editing by Mark Potter)