PARIS -- NXP Semiconductors, which makes vehicle electronics components, will partner with Kalray, a French chipmaker, to provide a central computing platform that can scale up to fully autonomous vehicles, the two companies said Tuesday.
For NXP, the agreement comes as something of a relief after Chinese government objections scuttled a $44 billion buyout offer from Qualcomm, the U.S. chipmaker giant, last summer, said Lars Reger, chief technical officer for NXP, which is based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
NXP has more than 30,000 employees globally, and had overall 2017 revenues of $9.26 billion.
"My boss and I were looking at each other last July and wondering if there was going to be drama" after the Qualcomm deal fell through, Reger said. "We had our answer in a week," when the Kalray agreement -- which was on the table, but with a 'handbrake' applied -- moved ahead," he said.
"We got a couple of calls saying, Hey guys, how about talking again?" Reger said. "The real opportunity only opened up after the Qualcomm deal stopped."
Kalray, based in Grenoble, France, makes "intelligent" processors for applications including autonomous vehicles. The company was spun off from the French atomic and alternative fuels agency in 2008, and went public last year in an IPO. Earlier investors included the Renault Nissan Mitsubishi venture capital fund and the French defense ministry's investment fund. Its processors were used in the Renault Symbioz autonomous vehicle demonstrator.
NXP will provide the host processor for the platform, the model S32, which can control all aspects of the vehicle, including networking, body electronics, powertrains and sensor fusion from cameras, lidar and radar.
The first iteration of the partnership will be the integration of Kalray’s MPPA processors into the NXP “Blue Box,” an embedded autonomous driving platform, aimed at current Level 2 and 3 technology. The Kalray processors will refine raw data from sensors and deliver it in usable form to the NXP Blue Box.
"Every smart, connected device, including an autonomous vehicle, has three compartments: sense, think and act," Reger said, explaining how the electronic architecture works. "You sense your environment, you think of the right advice, then you send it to the powertrain, brakes and wheels" -- what he called "the arms and legs of the self-driving robot."
NXP's Blue Box is capable of providing so-called Level 3 autonomy, in which the driver still has to be ready to take command of a vehicle if necessary, he said, but it can be upgraded to Level 4 or Level 5 by using the Kalray units to enhance its performance, Reger said. “In this way one can scale to true self-driving cars that are capable of operating in all conditions,” he said.
The first products from the agreement with Kalray will appear in the first half of this year, with each company scheduled to roll out new generations of equipment in the following months. A prototype will be shown at CES in Las Vegas this week using Baidu open-source automotive software.
“At the moment this is a product partnership,” Reger said, “but we’ll see how well it runs and what the next steps could look like.” He said NXP was in negotiations “with a major European OEM” to provide the complete NXP/Kalray system.
Semiconductor value will triple
Reger said the auto industry appeared to be stepping back somewhat from an aggressive timeline for Level 4 and 5 vehicles, given the cost and complexity. "The million-car volumes in the next four to six years are somewhere between Level 2 and 'Level 4 minus,'" he said, "so this is what we are trying to target."
Currently, the average semiconductor content in a vehicle is about $400, but that will triple as electrification and driver assistance systems proliferate, Reger said.
“What we think is that the $33 billion semiconductor market for vehicles will move over the next 10 years into a $100 billion market,” he said, noting that electrification requires complex power management, and that some top-level autonomous vehicles will have dozens of sensors producing data that needs processing.
True autonomous driving, in which there is no human pilot involved, is probably farther down the road than many are forecasting, Reger said.
There are still some technical hurdles for all-conditions safe driving, and there are not yet laws in place to provide an operating framework. But just as important is societal acceptance of having robots do the driving, he said, noting recent cases in which test cars were vandalized in Arizona, and in which people would jump out in front of cars in southern France, bringing them to a halt.
“You can completely stop autonomous traffic like this,” Reger said. “This is an an environmental situation that we don’t yet have the answer for.” The industry needs to make sure consumers don't approach autonomous vehicles from a position of fear, he said, which will require an effort to develop ethical and cybersecurity standards.
"As soon as the fear goes away and you realize that we’d be better off having automated safety systems paying attention instead of you,” he said, “it will really give the market a boost.”