Experts At The Table: Automotive Electronics

Final of three parts: Electric cars, ugly vehicles, big opportunities.


By Ann Steffora Mutschler
System-Level Design sat down to discuss the opportunities in automotive electronics with Alexandre Palus, principal SoC architect at Altera; Aveek Sarkar, VP of product engineering & support at Apache; Mladen Nizic, engineering director, mixed signal solution at Cadence; and Stephen Pateras, product marketing director, silicon test solutions at Mentor Graphics. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.


SLD: Does the electric car have enough business drivers in the U.S. to be successful?
Nizic: If you look at the rate of efficiency of the electric car and the battery capacity is increasing, certainly that would be out there soon, and then an infrastructure would be built. I think the business drivers are there because cars of today are a very inefficient way to travel.
Sarkar: You can always have dual gas/electric hybrids. Those, more or less, would do the job as well.
Nizic: Maybe things settle somewhere that gasoline engines become so efficient.
Palus: If you look at the car in Europe versus the car in the U.S., the car in Europe they do better mileage than a Prius and they are not even [a hybrid]. It’s just the fact that the government in Europe has decided they are going to change that. Japan is the same way.

SLD: Does the U.S. government really want our cars to have that kind of efficiency?
Palus: If GM and Ford don’t do it, they will die.
Sarkar: Tesla, for example, is upending this whole thing.
Palus: Exactly, and if GM and Ford die, then you have a lot of American workers going out on the street, and that the government cannot afford. Like they cannot afford for GM to go bankrupt, in the future they will make sure the stuff is out there. That’s how you protect your automotive industry.
Nizic: Look at how much better it became in five years with respect to fuel consumption.
Sarkar: If you look at the automotive ads, the first thing they tout – it’s just like the cell phone guys talking about battery life – these guys talk about mileage first.
Palus: That is true and that has changed in the last five years.
Sarkar: Chevy says, “We have the best line of 45 miles per gallon.” Then the competition comes up trumpeting 46. Everybody tries to outbid each other, but they have to back it up that’s why the cars are changing. It’s going to be more hybrid [than gas]. I think the mindset is going to go slowly towards EV [electric vehicle] but hybrid is probably going to be the stepping stone. I’ve been driving a hybrid myself – the Ford Fusion and get 40 miles a gallon versus my earlier 20 miles a gallon.
Pateras: They make them look better now too.

SLD: Don’t the carmakers make them ‘ugly’ to stand out on purpose? Today, driving an electric car is a social statement about your value system, but when you look at the cost to manufacture it, and the impact on the carbon footprint for the manufacturing…
Sarkar: It’s probably worse because you have to dispose the battery and all of that, so you’re probably worse off.
SLD: For now.
Sarkar: Yes.
Palus: At one point in time, I think it was from the carmaker, they said, “We are doing an EV. It has to be ugly.” But why?
SLD: Because the person that drives it wants everyone to know it is an EV.
Nizic: We are also prejudiced about what is ugly and what is good looking…cars in the future might look totally different than what we see today—colors, shapes, of course there are some aerodynamics, and why do tires have to be black? In the tire manufacturing process you can paint them any color.

SLD: What are the most exciting opportunities to be realized in automotive electronics?
Sarkar: This opens up a pretty big opportunity for overall EDA and more for us Apache/Ansys because historically, a lot of our partners in the automotive space were doing some fringe analysis. Now we start to see them adopt methodologies that CPU guys did or mobile application processor guys did because they are going into 50nm, some of them. So these are pretty sophisticated parts, some of them even have higher end ARM processors, especially for the infotainment console – there have to be high performance components in there. A lot of these careabouts that did not exist in their mind earlier, it was all about cost. It’s changing. Cost is still there but they’re looking at increasing functionality, integration within that same die and that definitely opens up new opportunities because the older careabouts still remain: cost, EMI, reliability – all of those remain for a high end device.
Pateras: It’s migrating from test being only a manufacturing problem to now being an in-system problem. So it means not only test but diagnostics – I’ll do that in real time which I think is going to drive a lot of new innovation in terms of not only test capabilities but communication protocols, and standardization in terms of communication.
Nizic: It’s integration of analog processors and software. Before when I used to say analog and software it was like two different worlds. Today they are coming much closer together. I see a stronger trend in that direction.
Palus: It’s car, it’s semiconductor…there are so many fun things to do with cars especially for us as a semiconductor vendor and you don’t know where to start. Everybody loves cars and we are working with semiconductors so it’s going to be fun.
Nizic: Instead of my tools, I’ll have to buy an oscilloscope so on the weekends if I want to kill some time.
Sarkar: You’ll have to connect an Ethernet board and run software debug.
Pateras: You just need the right app on your smartphone.
Palus: It’s Wi-Fi. You’ll just say, “What’s wrong, car?”
Nizic: Do you think that we maybe get less attached to our cars than we are today?
Palus: I don’t think so.