NXP Semiconductor is already a leading electronics supplier to the automotive industry thanks largely to last year’s $12 billion merger with Freescale Semiconductor. Now the company is using its chips to try to gain a foothold in the emerging market for self-driving cars.
The chipmaker on Monday introduced a computing platform called BlueBox designed to help automakers build and test autonomous vehicles. And it’s already in the hands of four major automakers, the company says. The system, which shipped to automakers in September, is on display this week at the NXP FTF Technology Forum in Austin.
The BlueBox is a central computer that can be tied to all the sensors found in an autonomous car such as radar, cameras, and LiDAR—a light-sensitive radar that emits short pulses of laser light to allow the vehicle to create a real-time, high-definition 3D image of what’s around it.
Self-driving cars need a computer powerful enough to process all that incoming sensor data in real time and use it to make the right actions as they navigate streets and highways loaded with obstacles. This is what the BlueBox is designed to do, according to NXP.
“It’s really the intelligence, the brain in the car that is going to make the right decisions,” Kurt Sievers, executive vice president and general manager of NXP’s automotive business, explained to Fortune.
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The BlueBox is a piece of hardware equipped with two different processors. It’s the interplay between these two processors—one a high-compute platform, the other a safety controller to make sure the right decisions are being made—is what gives NXP an edge over competitors, Sievers says.
For now, automakers are testing the system, although Sievers is confident it will be in production vehicles by 2020. Sievers wouldn’t name the automakers, but he did say the company is targeting deployment in high-volume passenger vehicles.
The product, if automakers like it, could be well-positioned to take advantage of a recent federal mandate to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature on all new cars no later than 2022 reporting year. Toyota has said it will achieve the emergency automatic braking goal by the end of 2017.
“Many of the car companies want to reach this mandate earlier in order to differentiate themselves,” Sievers says. “Cars that have emergency automatic braking are fantastic uses for our BlueBox because they will need central intelligence to take the information from the camera and the radar tells the car when to brake.”
BlueBox, which uses chips that are already in production, will enable automakers to put “Level 4” autonomous vehicles on the market by 2020, NXP says. NXP uses autonomous vehicle standards developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Level 4, by SAE’s definition, means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving—steering, automatic braking, speed control—under specific scenarios such as on a merging onto an expressway or during a low-speed traffic jam. In Level 5, the car handles all aspects of driving at all times.
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This isn’t NXP’s first foray into self-driving cars. In January the company introduced a postage stamp-sized single integrated radar chip designed to replace the ultrasonic radar traditionally used in emergency braking and other advanced vehicle safety systems found in today’s cars.
Shrinking the radar while increasing its power will lower the cost of advanced driver assistance systems. This drops the cost of self-driving cars, which could help accelerate efforts by companies like Google that are working on fully autonomous vehicles. Google (GOOGL) engineers are already testing the chip in its self-driving cars as well as other unnamed major automakers, NXP said in January.