Talking chip design at the Electronics weekly conference

Talking chip design at the Electronics weekly conferenceElectronics Weekly’s first semiconductor design conference took place last week at the Electronic Design Solutions exhibition in Birmingham. Speakers from many leading semiconductor firms presented papers on the emerging markets of digital TV, third generation mobile communications and automotive electronics. Richard Wilson sat in on the sessions and in the first of a series of reports he will highlight some of the talking points dealing first with the automotive market
Risc microprocessor firm ARM has only recently gone public on its plans to develop cores and embedded processing architectures specifically for use in cars and other vehicles. ARM, which has made its name in the development of 32-bit Risc microprocessor cores which are high performance but physically small and low power consuming, may not an obvious candidate for the automotive electronics market.
This is a market which is traditionally using 8- and 16-bit microprocessors from suppliers such as Motorola, Mitsubishi and STMicroelectronics for functions such as air-bag control and anti-lock breaking systems (ABS) to so-called body electronic functions such as window controls and dashboard electronics. It is also a market traditionally obsessed by cost reduction and environmental reliability. Keynote Panel: Programmable logic tackles the emerging
The keynote for the conference was set by Nigel Toon: Digital TV, the Internet and mobile data, driven by third generation mobile technology are the key emerging areas for semiconductor suppliers. Each will create a whole new class of product.
Inevitably the European managing director of Altera sees potential opportunities for programmable logic designs in each of these markets. The risk involved in introducing new products is greater because the supplier is faced by many new standards and not all will win, says Toon. He argues that in most medium volume markets, and he identifies networking and communications infrastructure as target markets, a programmable logic approach inherently gives design flexibility and speed-to-market benefits.
Toon accepts that programmable logic is not the universal answer to all product developments. In each of the market areas listed he admits there are consumer products, such as mobile phones, which are produced in the highest volume at the lowest cost, and which will benefit more from a cell-based Asic design approach than programmable logic.
But for the development of the infrastructure systems which will support each of these markets, and Toon estimates the networking infrastructure to be a significant $250bn plus investment, he maintains that the flexibility and speed-to-market features of PLDs will be most beneficial to systems developers. Ibelieve programmable solutions will dominate in infrastructure design, says Toon.
ARM’s director of European business development, Steve Evans is confident that ARM’s processor architectures can be relevant to the automotive systems designers. Our intention is to address both the body electronics and power train applications with a single instruction set architecture, the one compiler and the same toolset, said Evans.
Evans argues that it is attractive to the car firms, in the interests of reduced development costs and time-to-market needs, to have a single processor architecture that can address a range of microprocessor functions. These typically range from the low cost devices need to control non-critical body electronics like window and seat control, the specialist user functions such as information systems right up to the high performance real-time processing required by critical systems such as ABS, engine management and cruise control.
At the high performance end says Evans: It is important to provide a real-time capability using a cache-based architecture.
But he also believes that microprocessor power consumption will also be at a premium under the bonnet. The cost of power in a car is becoming higher and higher, says Evans. Both the size and weight of the battery and generator is becoming an issue for car manufacturers.
Evans also gives examples of how today’s microcontroller functions in the car will change in the coming years. Today’s ABS systems, says Evans, typically use 16-bit controllers, but they still provide a fairly simple anti-lock braking function.
Evans believes that car manufacturers are looking to development more sophisticated ABSs which will incorporate what he calls vehicle dynamics control where the brakes will play a bigger role in controlling the stability of the car. This will need many more position sensors, a more complex real-time operating systems and additional processing power and memory, maintains Evans.
Similar developments are also likely to improve the complexity and sophistication of car air-bag systems.
Problems have been identified around the world which have have had sadly tragic consequences, says Evans. Advances in the technology will result in more intelligent systems that take into account seat occupant size and position, as well as assessing the severity of collisions to tailor the air-bag action accordingly. Automotive’s CAN bus is a major microcontroller opportunity
Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Arizona Microchip and STMicroelectronics all outlined in papers how their microcontroller families are addressing the growing requirement for controllers for the two-wire CAN communications bus which has been adopted by most car manufacturers.
All papers were quick to highlight the main attraction of the CAN bus, which creates a multiplexed communications network within the car. This allows designs to distribute electronic control. sensing and processing around the vehicle, so that light control, ABS and engine management all transfer data across the same bus. The combination of new automotive specific microcontrollers and the use of advanced serial buses such as CAN are helping systems designers to move away from centralised system architectures to more cost-effective and flexible distributed systems, says Kevin White o f STMicroelectronics.
Mitsubishi’s European CANspecialist Ritu Nayar believes it is important that the microcontrollers used to control the CANbus have the capability to handle the high number of messages in a typical automotive system. The latest parts supporting full implementation of the CAN 2.0B protocol provide message filtering needed to handle the volume of traffic generated in the more complex and emerging system designs.
Markus Mierse, from Fujitsu’s microcontroller applications group maintains that the different applications such as navigation, dashboard or immobilizers require different combinations of microcontroller features. He highlighted some of these as being MCU core type, 32-bit, 16-bit, Risc , Cisc, and the use of instruction-cache and data cache.
Peripherals range from UART, ADC, DAC, and real time clock to mechanical control-specific peripherals such as stepper motor drivers, PWM, and input capture/output compare units.
In addition there are a range of bus architectures, not just CAN but also USB, Firewire and IrDA, as well as a full range of memory types.
According to Alex Warnock from Motorola Semiconductors, the key memory technology for the automotive market is flash memory. Flash memory enables shorter times to market, greater flexibility in production, and software configurable systems for auto manufacturers,says Warnock.
Because of flash memory, auto manufacturers will be able to provide downloadable field upgrades and features. That means that features can be added or enabled right at the dealership.
Motorola’s Alex Warnock highlights the growing importance of software in automotive designs. It may be the most critical element in resolving future system complexity issues, says Warnock. However, if companies really want to lower costs and speed up their design cycles, software must become more standardised.
One emerging standard called OSEK/VDX reflects a worldwide effort in the electronics industry to simplify and standardise the design process. The electronics industry wants to define open-ended architectures for distributed control systems, including standard software interfaces, and real time operating systems.
Warnock points to the Nexus project, in which Motorola and other suppliers like Siemens, HPand Hitachi are involved. This was initiated to define and implement an open embedded microprocessor development interface standard for embedded controller applications.
The automotive power train application is the first implementation for the Nexus standard. It will try to address the issue that high-performance MCU architectures do not provide external access and control for traditional tools,adds Warnock. Automotive electronics not a done deal for chip makers
The automotive market is commonly presented as one of the most attractive and potentially lucrative new markets for electronics suppliers and particularly semiconductor firms. But Steve Evans of ARM is quick to remind everyone of the challenges that still exist if suppliers are to increase the electronics in cars.
Firstly there is the effect of legislation, which is helping to promote the use of electronics through requirements for safety, fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. But Evans points out the lack of legislation in some areas of system design could present difficulties for suppliers. Legislation is not taking into account the amount of software currently being loaded into cars, he says.
The potential for driver information systems is enormous, but as Evans points out: There is a need for driver information to be presented intelligently. This will create challenges in getting it right and getting it safe, he says.
There is also the harsh environment under the bonnet and the inevitable pressure to reduce cost to be addressed.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle to be over come by electronics suppliers is the car industry’s relative inexperience of using their technology. It is a very conservative industry which is often slow to take up new technology, claims Evans.

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