Qualcomm, the biggest maker of smartphone chips, has never disguised its ambitions to expand into new industries. The chipmaker’s new wireless platform is another step in that direction, allowing cars to connect with other vehicles, the cloud, and infrastructure like signs and traffic lights.
In the shadow of high-profile experiments with machine vision, automakers have been testing new wireless systems in their cars. The systems are supposed to be almost telepathic, enabling cars to spread alerts about an accident or tell other vehicles that they are making a sudden stop. The point, automakers and government officials say, is to alleviate traffic and make driving safer.
The Connected Car Reference Platform, which will become available toward the end of the year, is meant to serve as the nerve center for connected cars. It contains multiple wireless chips for handling all the data flowing into and out of vehicle. The device can support include cellular networks, Wi-Fi, satellite navigation, Bluetooth, and short-range protocols to share location data with nearby devices.
“It’s like a Swiss Army knife,” said Paul Sakamoto, chief operating officer at Savari, a Silicon Valley startup that plugged its connected vehicle software to the platform for a recent demonstration at the TU-Automotive conference in Detroit.
Using the platform’s hardware, software developers can design custom applications, said Nakul Duggal, vice president of product management at Qualcomm. Tapping into the Wi-Fi chips, for instance, automakers could remotely update software in cars to close security glitches that can be exploited by hackers.
With all the progress in developing autonomous cars, many similar features are expected to become standard in future cars. In 2014, the European Commission agreed on standards for vehicles that “talk” with other cars and infrastructure. In the United States, the Department of Transportation has said that a mandate for so-called vehicle-to-vehicle communications should be in place before President Barack Obama leaves office in 2017.
The new platform is the latest attempt to alter the course of history at Qualcomm, whose business has revolved around mobile processors and cellular modem chips. Over the last two years, facing the prospect of slowing growth in the smartphone market, the company has been aggressive in making new versions of its smartphone chips for robotics, servers, and wearables.
But rethinking the business is not coming easy. The company is in the middle of a larger restructuring that could cut 15% of its workforce to reduce costs. Qualcomm has also been the target of anti-trust investigations in China, which not only hurt its massive licensing business there but could also impact its chances in the country’s other sectors.
Thus far, however, the automotive business has been a bright spot. Qualcomm has sold over 340 million automotive chips, mostly for telematics (like hands-free calling and navigation systems) and infotainment (like Apple Car Play and dashboard texting). Earlier this year, the latest automotive version of the Snapdragon 820 chip was released with an integrated X12 LTE modem for things like video streaming, voice recognition, and real-time traffic updates.
Qualcomm is not without a wide audience for its latest platform. The number of startups developing software for automobiles has ballooned in recent years, as automakers companies strive to make their vehicles more like smartphones. Hortonworks, for instance, has adapted its software to gather certain types of data from the vehicle, including speed, location, and safety responses like airbag deployment. It stores that data in the cloud so that automakers can analyze it, supplementing data on everything from diagnostics to driving habits.
Another startup, Movimiento, has ported its technology to the platform for automatically updating car software. Using cellular networks to access the cloud, automakers can update things like the operating system in the dashboard display or even the software that controls autonomous driving.
The platform can also support automated safety features and warnings. Savari provides technology for dedicated short range communications, a wireless standard that has been widely used to connect vehicles with their surroundings and other cars. This is known as Vehicle-to-X or V2X communications and Savari refers to it as sensor technology, similar in nature to the machine vision and radar sensors.
By sharing location data with other cars on the road, Savari’s software can warn drivers of a possible collision or when cars creep into their blind spots. Even hardware in smartphones can be reprogrammed to share data over DSRC, letting cars know the location of people walking around with phones in their pockets.
It is like sensor technology that works out of the car’s line of sight. “The big advantage of DSRC is that it’s always sending information,” said Savari’s Sakamoto. “It’s proactive. We are getting information ahead of obstacles on the road.”
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