Issue: Jul 2006

FPGAs – Driving the Automotive Electronics Opportunity

Improved technology, legislated regulations and consumer demands continue to drive the automotive electronics market upward.

by Martin Mason, Actel Corporation, Director, Silicon

Improved technology, legislated regulations and consumer demands continue to drive the automotive electronics market upward. High-growth application areas for automotive semiconductors include safety (airbags, cruise control, collision avoidance and anti-lock brakes) and cockpit electronics (entertainment, telematics, instrumentation and pay-for-use services).
With its long-time focus on reliability, cost and security, the automotive market has started to recognize the advantages that nonvolatile FPGA technologies have to offer. Automotive engineers have traditionally relied on microcontrollers (MCUs) and custom application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to implement and control electronic systems and expand the capabilities of each automotive generation. But growing component counts, greater time-to-market pressure, and greater demands for performance are requiring alternative technologies, such as low cost, low power, highly reliable field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).
Compared with MCUs, the FPGA offers automotive designers greater performance and features (I/Os, programmable Logic, etc.). Similarly, when compared with ASICs, FPGAs provide lower cost and greater flexibility. FPGAs, unlike ASICs, can also be used in multiple programs/projects, thereby helping designers to maximize time and resources associated with automotive qualification activities. Products can also be upgraded when they are already in service with minimal qualification consequences. For these reasons and others, Gartner Dataquest analysts have identified FPGAs as the fastest growing semiconductor segment for the automotive industry, with over 70% CAGR through 2007.
FPGA partnerships
Actel is partnering with the key automotive systems designers to take full advantage of the attributes of FPGAs. High-reliability components are essential to ensure the proper function of the systems in today's vehicles. While there has been substantial progress made in this area, there are still many engineering trade-offs that are poorly understood. When selecting a FPGA, it is important to evaluate the base technology used because it can have a significant impact on the reliability and suitability of an FPGA technology in automotive applications.
For example, flash- and antifuse-based nonvolatile FPGAs have two fundamental quality advantages over SRAM based FPGA technologies. Both have dramatically low power consumption, which helps mitigate SRAM-based FPGA electro-migration and thermal run-away reliability concerns. Further, SRAM FPGA power and heat dissipation can significantly limit the life of these deep sub-micro semiconductor devices.
As the complexity of automotive electronics grows, and FPGA usage continues to increase, so does the value of the designs they hold. Intellectual property theft and FPGA tampering pose a significant liability threat to the automotive industry. While SRAM FPGAs are typically considered susceptible to tampering requiring minimal expertise and equipment, nonvolatile FPGAs, like those from Actel, are even more secure against attack than the ASIC technologies they replace. Designers are, therefore, encouraged to select a FPGA that will have minimum impact on total system cost while providing higher levels of overall design security.
Additionally, the threat of compromise is of special concern for designers of telematic systems that serve as an authorization mechanism for fee-for-service products (i.e. satellite radio and location-based services). This is a case where an intelligent hack of a low-cost appliance could lead to the compromise of an entire communications network. More importantly, the revenue model defined for pay-per-use systems would become totally ineffective, leading to declining revenue and eventual failure of the enterprise.

Electronics spark

According to Databeans, a market research firm focused on the semiconductor and electronics industries, electrical and electronics content represents approximately 20 percent of the cost of the average vehicle. The firm estimates that a lower-priced vehicle built in 2004 has 150 to 180 components, while today’s higher-price vehicle might contain more than 400 components.
Further, Databeans estimates that the worldwide automotive semiconductors market is currently valued at about $15.5 billion. More growth is expected in 2006, bringing the market closer to $17.4 billion. For the forecast period, Databeans anticipates an average growth rate of 9 percent per year.

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