LAS VEGAS — Whether by integrating voice assistants into their infotainment packages or adding cabin-monitoring systems for advanced driver-assist features, automakers and suppliers are paying an inordinate amount of attention to the interior of their vehicles.
The influx of such features and reimagined cockpits are on display this week at CES — they're as prevalent this year as the autonomous-driving demonstrations that have turned CES into arguably the most important auto show on the annual calendar.
If these aspirations are truly to transform into an automotive reality — if kids are going to watch multiple high-definition videos while their drivers depend on the same underlying systems to perform critical safety functions, then the processing power and overall smarts operating these cockpit features need an upgrade.
Qualcomm has been working on that, unveiling Monday the latest iteration of its Snapdragon system on chip, which will allow auto industry engineers to further meld infotainment and safety features on a single computing platform.
Slated to arrive in 2021 in the marketplace, this third-generation chipset will come in three distinct frameworks that give auto manufacturers some leeway in deciding how much compute and artificial intelligence they need depending on how many features they offer. Judging by the number of features on display at CES, such as flexible, curved screens, enhanced gesture control and augmented-reality displays automakers are going to need a lot.
"Automakers mostly realize now they have to own the experience of the consumer," says Nakul Duggal, vice president of product development for Qualcomm's automotive division. "That means many different things, including a massive transformation in display surfaces that are much more attractive in terms of the look and feel. It's so very different than the typical rectangle we're used to."
Qualcomm is demonstrating the latest Snapdragon in collaboration with electronics giant LG here in Las Vegas, and the screens are anything but boxy — they're curved, they're shaped like instrument panels and more.
For Qualcomm, this marks the third automotive-specific version of its Snapdragon system in five years. With its arrival in 2014, the company remains a relative newcomer in the automotive realm. But Duggal says Qualcomm already has 17 automaker customers for its Snapdragon chipsets. Two more, who were not customers for the previous-generation product, have inked contracts for this latest version, though Qualcomm is not yet naming them.
"We've only been talking to customers for about four months, so this is still quite new," Duggal said.
This iteration of Snapdragon will arrive in three levels, enabling customers to plan for features that run the gamut from virtual assistants, panoramic screens and gesture control in the near term. As OEM ambitions grow over time and the advent of autonomous-driving frees up vehicle occupants to turn their attention to more screens, engineers can implement higher-performance chips.
While entertainment possibilities might capture the attention of consumers, it's on the safety side where the computing for reconfigurable cluster displays, rear-view cameras that replace rear-view mirrors and higher-performance driver-assist systems may matter most. With enhanced power, Snapdragon can run all on the same chip; Duggal says a hardware abstraction layer ensures the safety-critical functions receive priority if there's a dearth of compute resources.
Overall, Snapdragon's latest iteration is a good reminder that as so many companies showcase highly visual in-cabin features and ideas of how they'll evolve as autonomous cars arrive, companies like Qualcomm are laying the foundation to make them possible.