As cars become smartphones, Big Auto turns to handset chipmaker to survive

January 7, 2022, 3:16 PM UTC

After Tesla transformed the car into a smartphone on wheels, automakers lagging behind are now turning to a mobile handset chip provider to help narrow the widening technology gap.

Semiconductor designer Qualcomm inked further deals with a number of auto brands including Volvo and Honda this week that will serve the growing demand by drivers to enjoy the kind of seamless connectivity they know from their Samsung Galaxy S21 when in their cars. 

In the past, automakers were all too loath to reveal who provided parts for their vehicles. The growing importance of chipmakers, however, has upended the traditional industry pecking order. Overarching trends have catapulted semiconductor companies to the top of the food chain—making them a strategic partner to car companies rather than just a bottom-tier supplier. 

Qualcomm chief executive Cristiano Amon told attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that his company was simply applying the “same recipe” that saw it succeed in smartphones in order to build up a pipeline of deals worth some $13 billion even before it launched its first acquisition

“There is no bigger disruption from a technology standpoint than automotive, when compared to every other industry,” the CEO said this week. “The car has been completely transformed—the experience of owning and driving a car is different. The relationship between car companies with their customers is different.”

Courtesy of Qualcomm

The global semiconductor shortage has highlighted the importance of chips in keeping automotive assembly lines running. Yet Tesla has been able to skirt the chip crunch and grow volumes 87% last year by relying on advanced processors that centralize a vehicle’s computing power rather than distribute it among a large array of commodity microcontrollers using proven and robust yet obsolete circuitry.

It is precisely because of this approach that Tesla has pioneered the ability to improve a car’s performance and range, and unlock fun new features like video games and other Easter eggs, via over-the-air firmware updates, years ahead of its competition.

Converging in the cockpit

Elon Musk’s success has proved that telematics, infotainment, and advanced self-driving features are becoming every bit as important to car buyers in the future as horsepower and torque, if not more. It’s even prompting some consumer electronics groups like Sony to now consider building cars.

Qualcomm refers to these three rapidly developing disciplines collectively as a car’s “digital chassis,” the electronic equivalent to its mechanical counterpart underpinning the vehicle. Together they combine to enhance a consumer’s overall user experience, or UX, when driving.

“We strongly believe the digital chassis is the element of [competitive] differentiation for the architecture of a car in the future,” Qualcomm Europe boss Enrico Salvatori told reporters this week. 

Whether it is the augmented-reality driver head-up display in the Volkswagen ID.4, the organically shaped Hyperscreen that stretches across the entire dashboard of the Mercedes-Benz EQS sedan, or the powerful central display in a Tesla Model S Plaid, information is being relayed to a car’s users in increasingly innovative ways. These in turn demand increasingly complex processors to power them.

The Hyperscreen featured in the Mercedes-Benz EQS electric vehicle stretches across the full length of the dashboard.
Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Volvo and its affiliated performance brand Polestar have now agreed to use the third generation of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Cockpit in their upcoming electric vehicles to create a more appealing experience that can compete with that delivered by Tesla.

By properly conveying data in an easy and intuitive manner, automakers and their chip partners can also aid drivers in their decision-making process and improve traffic safety.

“Cars are getting more connected, there is more sensors, more information being collected and presented to the users,” said Thomas Stovicek, head of UX at Volvo Cars. “All of this is coming together at a converging point for the user within the cockpit.”

Power of a Sony PlayStation

Legacy carmakers have a lot of catching up to do, though. Most affordable cars come standard with old-school instrument clusters rather than digital ones. For Porsche it’s even by design: Each combustion engine car they build comes with at least an analog tachometer gauge so drivers can see the needle spin when the motor revs.

Tesla’s latest infotainment system known as MCU3 meanwhile features silky smooth and ultrafast responsiveness to touch-screen commands. In upgrading to next-generation hardware, Musk opted to swap out the previous, slower Intel Atom processor in favor of a Ryzen Embedded chip from rival semiconductor supplier AMD. This endows the MCU3 with computing power roughly equivalent to Sony’s newest PlayStation 5 gaming console. 

French carmaker Renault didn’t need any further convincing that its range required a major overhaul in dashboard technology. It had already begun sourcing Qualcomm’s third-gen Snapdragon Cockpit infotainment chips for its new compact electric hatchback, the Mégane E-Tech, before signing up for a new deal with the chipmaker.

Renault plans to roll out the full portfolio of Qualcomm’s automotive semiconductors across its entire lineup, including the Snapdragon Ride advanced driver assistance processor, in a deal that will see the first vehicles launch in early 2026. (General Motors also said this week it would purchase self-driving chips from the company for its upcoming Cadillac Celestiq.) 

“Today’s automotive landscape is evolving more rapidly than ever; the automotive experience is increasingly digital,” Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo explained at this week’s CES. “So keeping up with our customer expectations requires working closely with top tech companies like Qualcomm.”

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