The fact that these MCUs are targeting highly-sophisticated connected car applications like infotainment and ADAS means that the journey toward bigger and more powerful chips is now inevitable.
The automotive industry has reached a new era marked by giant initiatives like infotainment, connected car and semi-autonomous vehicles. And, no one seems more excited than the MCU guys who have been a part and parcel of in-car electronics for the past two decades. However, the humble microcontroller is going through a profound makeover in itself in order to come to terms with the demands of the connected car environment.
Take Atmel Corporation, one of the top MCU suppliers, who has launched its SAM DA1 family of microcontrollers at Embedded World 2015 in Nuremberg, Germany. The automotive-grade ARM Cortex-M0+-based MCUs come with capacitive touch hardware support for human-machine interface (HMI) and local interconnect network (LIN) applications. The SAM DA1 series integrates peripheral touch controller (PTC) for capacitive touch and eliminates the need for external components while minimizing CPU overhead. The feature is aimed at capacitive touch button, slider, wheel and proximity sensing applications.
Moreover, SAM DA1 microcontrollers offer up to 64KB of Flash, 8KB of SRAM and 2KB read-while-write Flash. The other key features of SAM DA1 series include 45 DMIPS and up to six serial communication interface (SERCOM), USB and I2S ports. SERCOM is configurable to operate as I2C, SPI or USART, which gives developers flexibility to mix serial interfaces and have greater freedom in PCB layout.
The automotive-grade MCUs — operating at a maximum frequency of 48MHz and reaching a 2.14 Coremark/MHz — are qualified to the AEC Q-100 Grade 2 (-40 to +105degreeC). According to Matthias Kaestner, VP of Automotive at Atmel, the company is targeting the SAM DA1 chips for in-vehicle networking, infotainment connectivity and body electronics.
The fact that the SAM DA1 devices are based on powerful ARM cores clearly shows a trend toward more performance and the ability to run more tasks on the same MCU. The Cortex-M0+ processor design comes with a two-stage pipeline that improves the performance while maintaining maximum frequency. Moreover, it supports a new I/O interface that allows single cycle accesses and enables faster I/O port operations.
That’s no surprise because the number of electronic control units (ECUs) is on the rise amid growing momentum for connected car features like advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). However, a higher number of ECUs will make the communication among them more intense; so automotive OEMs want to reduce the number of ECUs while they want more value from the MCU.
Moreover, car vendors want to bring down the number of ECUs to avoid complexity within the larger car network. The outcome of this urge is the integration of more performance and functionality onto the MCU. Each ECU has at least one microcontroller.
Atmel and the Evolution of MCU
Atmel’s SAM DA1 device is another testament that the boundaries between MCU and SoC platforms are blurring. The fact that these MCUs are targeting highly sophisticated connected car applications like infotainment and ADAS means that the journey toward bigger and more powerful chips is now inevitable.
Atmel is an MCU company, and this product line has played a crucial role in its transformation that started in the late 2000s. At the same time, however, the San Jose, California–based chipmaker seems fully aware of the critical importance of the system-level solutions. Atmel calls the SAM DA1 family of chips MCUs; however, its support for more peripherals, larger memories and intelligent CPU features show just how much the MCU has changed over the course of a decade.
Atmel has a major presence in the automotive market with its MCUs and touch controllers being part of the top-ten car vendors. It’s interesting to note that, beyond its MCU roots, Atmel has a lot of history in automotive electronics as well. Atmel was one of the first chipmakers to enter the automotive market.
Moreover, Atmel bought the IC division of Temic Telefunken Microelectronic GmbH for approximately $110 million back in 1998. Telefunken was an automotive electronics pioneer with an early success in electronic ignition chips that made way into Volkswagen cars back in 1980.
The release of SAM DA1 series marks a remarkable opportunity as well as a crafty challenge for Atmel in the twilight worlds of MCU and automotive electronics. Tom Hackenberg, a senior analyst at IHS, calls the phenomenon ‘SoC on wheels.’
Hackenberg says that the automotive industry consumed approximately a third of all MCUs shipped in 2013. However, now there is an SoC on the road, the brain behind the connected car, and it commands a deeper understanding of the AEC-Q100 standard for automotive quality and ISO 26262 certification for car’s functional safety.
The integration of touch controller into SAM DA1 chips can be an important value proposition for the car OEMs who are burning midnight oil to develop cool infotainment platforms for their newer models. Next, while AEC Q100 Grade 2 qualification is a prominent part of the SAM DA1, Atmel might have to consider augmenting the ISO 26262 certification for functional safety, a vital requirement in ADAS and other connected car features.
Majeed Ahmad is author of books Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronics and The Next Web of 50 Billion Devices: Mobile Internet’s Past, Present and Future.
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