Daimler and NVIDIA have announced a cockpit systems deal.
Daimler and NVIDIA have announced a cockpit systems deal.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pixabay)

SMART COCKPITS Cockpit/Infotainment electronics technology market leaders

| Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Jochen Schwab

In-vehicle automotive electronics and infotainment are helping to turn today’s cars into the smart mobility vehicles of tomorrow. A number of companies are focusing on delivering new systems and technology to rapidly advance this market sector.

As cars slowly become more “connected, autonomous, shared, and electric” (CASE), cockpit navigation and display systems have needed to keep up with the progression of these innovations.

Carmaker OEMs in some cases have risen to the challenge of providing new ways to display both information and entertainment (generally referred to with the portmanteau “infotainment”), while in others, they’ve turned to third-party companies that have made this area of expertise their specialty.

Companies like NVIDIA, Visteon, Qualcomm, Intel, and Samsung/Harman are regularly dreaming up new methods to convey both the necessary data and alerts needed by drivers as well as providing ways both drivers and passengers can work while on the road and also be entertained. As the process of driving becomes more autonomous, drivers will transform into passengers themselves and will become just as immersed in the worlds of work, education, and entertainment as other occupants in the vehicles in which they’re traveling.

As a number of companies see it, specific in-vehicle electronics sub-domains that are being focused on include instrument clusters, information displays, heads-up displays (HUDs), infotainment technologies and delivery solutions, audio hardware and software, telematics devices, and cockpit domain controllers (which can control all electronic parts of the car—if need be using multiple operating systems and incompatible software—via virtual layers called hypervisors).

All of these have increased the price tag of such systems in a vehicle from less than three percent of a car’s total cost sixty years ago to up to 30 percent today, if one factors in electronics needed for autonomous driving, car connectivity, and/or intelligent transportation systems (ITS). By 2030, this percentage is expected to increase further, to up to 50 percent of a car’s total cost. In all, the market for in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) technologies is expected to be worth USD$46 billion by 2026, up from USD$15 billion in 2016.

Approaches from Samsung/Harman and Apple

In the case of Harman International, a former home and car audio company that was acquired by Samsung in 2017, the firm’s goals are to reduce complexity in its cockpit systems for OEMs for both drivers and passengers.

As of today, Google Android and Apple iPhone smartphone integration with full Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capabilities have been achieved in Harman’s cockpit components. Android and/or Linux operating systems run via Blackberry’s QNX Hypervisor and make use of Harman’s Ignite 3.0 cloud functionality (which may include connections to smart home appliances in the future), enabled by Harman’s partnership with Chinese Internet conglomerate Tencent.

Harman’s instrument clusters and navigation maps are Automotive Safety Integrity Level (ASIL) B-compliant, while voice recognition and Amazon Alexa voice assistant services are delivered with individual personalization (which Harman brands “Personi-Fi”) and leave more of drivers’ attention on the road. Harman’s systems also integrate passenger and driver monitoring, and Harman’s heritage in audio backs up the company’s use of its Audioworx digital signal processing (DSP) for multi-zone in-car sound.

Harman’s infotainment is Android-driven (Harman parent Samsung is the largest manufacturer of Android devices). “That Samsung already understands how to ensure that hundreds of millions of connected devices function properly and effectively is a significant advantage,” says Roger C. Lanctot, director of automotive connected mobility at market research firm Strategy Analytics.

In fact, the Android Auto ecosystem, which is supported by dedicated Amazon Music, Audioburst, and YouTube Music apps, has been eagerly embraced by numerous carmaker OEMs such as Sweden’s Volvo (owned by China’s Geely Group). While Android competitor Apple was said to have been contemplating becoming an automaker OEM itself with its secret Project Titan, new rumors say the computer company—a venerable pioneer in user interface design and human-machine interaction (HMI)—may instead be opting to merely expand its CarPlay platform to better spar with Google.

Solutions from Visteon, NVIDIA, Daimler, and BMW

American automotive electronics firm Visteon (formerly a division of automaker Ford) also recognizes that simplicity is one of the keys to increasing safety while delivering increased functionality to drivers and passengers. In 2018, Visteon’s Qualcomm Snapdragon- and Blackberry/QNX-based SmartCore cockpit domain controllers became the first ones installed in production vehicles, maintaining a consistent HMI across multiple displays. Visteon’s DriveCore Studio is an open, scalable platform for Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 2-and-up autonomous driving (AD) that leverages Microsoft’s Azure Cloud for AD development, testing, and validation. Visteon’s infotainment solutions are Android- or Linux-based, with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility.

Like Visteon and Harman, American AD chipmaker NVIDIA is convinced that intelligence in the cockpit—enabled via technology—is the key to not overwhelming drivers or passengers. The “software-defined” Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) that NVIDIA developed in collaboration with Germany’s Daimler makes use of NVIDIA’s DRIVE AGX Orin platform to provide over-the-air (OTA)-upgradeable machine-learning AI and natural-language processing capabilities. These in turn afford a simplified, personalized HMI for more than a dozen production Mercedes vehicles today (with the rest of Mercedes’ fleet to follow by 2024). MBUX is also integrated into a robo-taxi service being piloted in San Jose, California by Daimler in association with Bosch.

BMW is also actively incorporating personalization in its cockpits for its X5, 3-series, and 8-series cars. Hand-gesture recognition is a technology BMW has invested a lot of R&D resources in, which the automaker is beginning to incorporate in a number of its vehicle models.

Qualcomm and Intel cockpit platforms

With its third-generation Snapdragon cockpit platform that features a Hexagon processor, Spectra image signal processing, and a Kryo CPU, chipmaker Qualcomm offers a scalable, high-performance, AI-enhanced system-on-a-chip (SoC) heterogeneous architecture. Snapdragon can support multiple hypervisors, Android and Linux OSes, 360-degree camera imaging, 3D mapping, face and voice recognition, multiple Ultra HD displays, multi-zone audio, and 4G streaming infotainment. Qualcomm has emphasized Snapdragon’s Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, LTE, and dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) capabilities that can support vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) connectivity.

Like Qualcomm, Intel also backs up its cockpit development platform with extensive experience with high-speed microprocessors. For vehicular use, Intel powers its cockpit platform with the compact, energy-efficient, 14-nanometer-scale Intel Atom A3900 automotive processor. The platform supports driver monitoring and video processing with real-time compute capabilities. Intel offers a reference board to developers that comes with IVI middleware, Android and Linux OS support, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and a removable debug card. Intel also provides extensive developer software tools and support.

Future technologies

As SAE Level 4 and 5 AD starts to relieve today’s drivers of their proactive duties, the long-prophecied vision of driver and front-passenger seats rotating (as in Daimler’s Mercedes F 015 concept vehicle) to face the back end of a vehicle may become a reality, with the placement of screens (or even the donning of virtual-reality [VR] goggles) possibly shifting to accommodate this advancement.

“Maybe you can’t make your car a living room on wheels yet,” says James Hodgson, an analyst at ABI Research in the UK, “but you can still repurpose a lot of the smart home experience within, say, a semi-autonomous vehicle.” Firms such as Israel’s MobilEye (a part of the U.S.’s Intel), and Germany’s ZF, Audi, and VR gaming startup Holoride (which Audi has invested in) are actively researching these entertainment technologies and partnering with industry giants Disney and Warner Brothers in developing prototype systems and content.

Biometric sensors embedded in seats or using connections to devices such as smartwatches or retina scanners will allow cars of the future not just to detect and predict drowsiness, but to offer comfort, health, and wellness solutions to combat stress, motion sickness, and improper ventilation or climate control. Companies such as the U.S.’s Eyeris and Lear Corp., France’s Faurecia (the parent of Japan’s Clarion), and Germany’s Continental are investing today in R&D for such technologies.

Asian market players

In Japan, where drivers have been used to advanced cockpit displays and systems for years, the firms Alpine, Denso, Nippon Seiki, Panasonic/Sanyo, and Pioneer are players to watch in the near future not just in the domestic Japanese market, but in China and beyond as well. In China, Huawei, Baidu, and AliBaba are formidable entrants in the technology arena that have gained footholds for their respective Harmony, Apollo/DuerOS, and AliOS cockpit platforms with major Chinese automaker OEMs, as well as several overseas.