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Audi's semiconductor strategy 'central' to its design process

It's no surprise to find out the electronics content of cars is increasing, but what does come as a bit of an eye opener is the extent to which cars now depend on semiconductors.

Berthold Hellenthal, semiconductor strategist for Audi, provided some insight during his keynote address to Cadence Live, which took place in Munich last week. "90% of the innovation in the automotive industry is driven by semiconductors," he claimed. "Their complexity is rising, which is making it harder to use them."
Hellenthal said there are now between 6000 and 8000 semiconductors in each new Audi – and one rolls off the production line at Ingolstadt every 88s.

With development of its cars dependent upon electronics, Audi is attaching a much greater level of importance to the technology – until the Thailand floods in 2011 interrupted its supply chain, the company wasn't paying a great deal of attention to the topic. Now, said Hellenthal, it looks at a number of areas, including deadlines, supply guarantees, quality and cost. "If we don't have parts, we can't sell cars," he said.

But it's not just supply chain issues that have captured the attention of Audi's board, it's also the pace of semiconductor innovation and the growing gap between the development cycles of cars and chips.

"Semiconductors are the smallest detail we get involved with, but we're not all semiconductor specialists," Hellenthal admitted. "We're good at taking parts and making cars." So Audi's semiconductor strategy is now a central part of the design process.

His problem is the mismatch between the development cycles. "Vehicle development takes seven years, while it takes five years to develop a semiconductor. MOSFETs get updated every two or three years, but Moore's Law is an 18 month cycle. Managed NAND changes every 15 months and AEC-Q100 qualification takes six months. We have to work on shorter development cycles because the pressure to use the latest products is high." Nevertheless, whilst accepting the industry is conservative, he said companies like Audi had found ways to incorporate such technologies as LTE in new models.

Hellenthal said he sees the problem as an intelligent integration puzzle. "But integrated solutions challenge the value chain; we need the right people in order to do it and we need the right quality levels." Other issues include semiconductor life span. "We're looking for lifetime support and this is becoming a bigger issue since a lot of semiconductors are getting to end of life. We're having to reinvent units as semiconductors become unavailable."

Hellenthal believes that car makers, tier 1 suppliers and semiconductor manufacturers will have to work more closely in the future. "Today," he said, "Audi gives money to tier 1s, which gives money to semiconductor companies, which ship products to Audi. We want all to work more closely because the pace of technology innovation is moving quickly."

An example of how this closer collaboration may evolve is that of nVidia. "It sells semiconductors," Hellenthal pointed out, "but it is also supplying modules. We're looking for manufacturers to provide more than a piece of silicon; we want them to provide solutions."

Audi needs to use the latest electronics technology, he said. "We can change the environment, because we have to find a way to use technology." One way is better use of packaging technologies and approaches such as through silicon vias. "Smaller packages are important," he said. "They mean we can put more intelligence at the sensor. These packages also allow us to do partial updates and to develop specific models for particular markets. We want to put money into modules so we can integrate new functions into cars. We want to accelerate our time to market by taking advantage of semiconductor innovation at the system level."

Concluding, he said: "Intelligent integration is a new area of innovation. It's about new collaboration models and partnerships. It's evolution and revolution."

Author
Graham Pitcher

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