Car radios have transformed into multi-function systems capable of tuning in anywhere in the world, and serving a growing number of other functions. A world leader in the technology is NXP Semiconductors, which was identified by market research firm iSuppli Corp. as the top player in the automotive infotainment semiconductor market in 2009. NXP Semiconductors, which is a spin-off of Philips, provides High Performance Mixed Signal and standard products for RF, analog, power management, interface, security and digital processing functions. These are used in a wide range of automotive, identification, wireless infrastructure, lighting, industrial, mobile, consumer and computing applications. Headquartered in Europe, the company has approximately 28,000 employees working in more than 25 countries and posted sales of US$3.8 billion in 2009.
Automotive Industries (AI) asked Steffen Spannagel, product marketing manager, Car Entertainment Solutions, NXP Semiconductors Germany, what were some of the key factors in the success of the company.
Spannagel: We have very close customer contacts at many Tier 1 and OEMs worldwide. Most of these relationships have been in existence for a very long time. This allowed us to build up excellent application know-how and system expertise. Our core competencies as a High Performance Mixed Signal company, for example in RF / tuner technology and digital / software processing, allow us to offer the functionality the market is demanding at an attractive system cost. A good example is our car radio/audio DSP solutions, where we achieved significant system cost reduction in the latest generation SAF774x by bringing, for example, low-IF radio architecture to the automotive market. The low-IF approach in combination with the integration of many expensive externals made our also analog AM/FM tuners a benchmark for total application costs in its respective market segment, and enabled faster time to market.
AI: What car entertainment challenges face the automotive industry?
Spannagel: Car makers and Tier 1 suppliers need to support a large number of platforms to serve different regional tastes and standards. Digital radio broadcasting systems are now being rolled out in more and more countries worldwide. With an increasing number of digital radio standards, the number of system configurations is further multiplying and customers face the challenge how to support many system configurations in an efficient way.
Connectivity is another key trend, as consumers like to play music from their portable devices. USB and Bluetooth connectivity will become standard. A third trend is the requirement for more advanced audio processing. On the one hand, audio features from consumer applications like virtual surround have moved into the car. On the other, new audio applications appear in the car like for example active noise cancellation.
AI: How is NXP helping customers meet these challenges?
Spannagel: We apply various integration strategies, such as tuner integration into DSP/baseband, to let radio one-chip devices replace chipset solutions of tuner and DSP/baseband in the future. Such integration also prevents us from creating inefficiencies by combining high take rate features with features having low penetration rates. Another integration strategy is software defined radio (SDR), which allows handling of multiple radio standards by means of different software running on one hardware platform. This approach is already applied by our SAF356x family of digital terrestrial radio co-processors for HD Radio and different members of the DAB(+)/T-DMB family.
But it’s not only about integration. As the market requires a wide range of system configurations to address different regions or models of cars, the solutions need to support flexibility and modularity in the applications. Finally, NXP offers complete system solutions to the market including tuners, DSP/basebands, and software. This significantly reduces application design effort by our customers, and lets them focus on areas where they can achieve real differentiation such as HMI or connectivity.
AI: What is the future of analog radio?
Spannagel: AM/FM will stay a core sub-system of the car infotainment unit. The change from analog solutions to DSP-based systems continues as they offer more advanced features and functions for radio as well as audio processing. Also the number of multi-tuner applications is increasing as customers ask for improved reception quality, for example from phase diversity systems, or for additional convenience from background tuners. Our car radio/audio DSPs SAF774x in combination with NXP’s TEF700x tuners represent flexible and scalable system solutions for global analog radio designs. Accordingly we actively contribute to several reference design activities currently under development in the market. Genivi is one of these.
AI: Which trend do you see for digital terrestrial radio in the car?
Spannagel: HD Radio is already today showing strong growth in the US. In Europe, DAB has had considerable traction in the UK, and the discussion around the legislation in France for T-DMB from 2013 onwards has also created a positive market environment. Many other European countries, including Germany, show renewed interest especially in DAB+.
In the short term most systems will be using co-processors to add the digital radio function. NXP’s SAF356x family with external memory enables scaling the application to a range of features, from DAB-FM blending, TPEG and slide-show support to full time shift with audio buffer. All this is supported by the co-processor’s high-level API, effectively reducing the development cost on the application side.
AI: How are you addressing China?
The Chinese market has somewhat different requirements compared to North America, Europe or Japan. To achieve a fast time-to-market many customers are looking for strong partners that allow them to limit their own radio design effort by providing proven solutions and strong application support. We have the products and people available to serve these market needs. This is reflected in the recent shipping of the 30 millionth analog AM/FM tuner TEF66xx for which China is one of the key markets.
AI: How do you see the market for audio amplifiers?
Spannagel: The automotive audio amplifier market is characterized by the increase of the number of audio channels per car. This is true for head unit systems, which have started going from four to six channels, as well as for sound systems that can go up to 22 channels. In addition, there will be new applications for audio amplifiers in the car. I think of active noise cancellation as mentioned before or sound generation for electrical cars as they don’t have engine noise. This growth of audio amplifiers per car also drives the need for reduction of power dissipation that is one key focus area of our Best Efficiency class-AB and high output power class-D amplifiers portfolio.
AI: The EU is considering a mandate of eCall for all new cars. Is NXP ready?
Spannagel: eCall is the automatic signaling of 112 emergency services in the event of a car accident. This requires telematics units that use GPS positioning, are connected to the CAN bus to receive status data of the car, and use GSM/GPRS to connect to the services. In the event of an accident, a voice connection is set up and a set of data on the status of the car will be sent. NXP Semiconductors provides the core in-car technology that enables this. With the GPS/GPRS secure ATOP chip, NXP delivers the nucleus of a telematics unit: ready to ship, off the shelf, automotive quality, financial grade, GRPS pre-certified and suitable for both factory fit and the after market.
AI: What new technologies and solutions can we expect from NXP?
Spannagel: We keep innovating in SDR architecture for multi-standard applications and markets to create even stronger benefits. An ideal complement to SDR for future radio systems is wide-band reception. This reduces the complexity of the front-end significantly by moving even more signal processing to the digital domain. Based on our strong technological competences and leading market position we’re also looking into new automotive RF applications such as intelligent transport systems, and car-to-x communications.