FPGAs roll into production

  • 13-May-2008 10:52 EDT
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Infotainment applications are creating openings for Altera's FPGAs.

Rapidly changing features such as infotainment and driver assistance are creating openings for technologies that facilitate customization. Programmable logic devices (PLDs) that were once used primarily for prototyping are now seeing use in production vehicles.

Altera Corp. is among the PLD makers responding to this new market opening, producing more automotive-grade FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) and complex PLDs. Additionally, its Paris development platform is a scalable infotainment solution with CAN (controller area network), MOST (media oriented systems transport), and USB (universal serial bus) interfaces as well as an automotive graphics system, an audio processing module, and an application processor.

FPGAs can be programmed in hardware as well as software so they let Tier 1 suppliers design a single platform that can be revised for different OEMs. That programmability also lets OEMs change parameters as they equip low- and high-end vehicles.

“Multimedia is always changing, with different size screens and smaller versions for low-end vehicles and larger higher-resolution screens for higher-end vehicles,” said Dave Elliott, Senior Marketing Manager at Altera’s Automotive Business Unit. “With an FPGA, you can address several price points.”

Though PLDs have been limited largely to prototyping, declining prices are helping change that. Additionally, applications that are new and have shifting requirements are making PLDs suitable for production. “Infotainment will be the biggest growth area for us, followed by driver assistance,” said Tom Schulte, Altera’s Senior Marketing Manager.

In infotainment, the push to offer more movies and other video as well as enhanced 3-D graphics for navigation is pressing the limits of graphics devices. FPGAs can handle various tasks so consumers will not see jitter or other problems when processors cannot keep up.

“When you’re doing things like 3-D, graphics processors are running out of steam,” Elliott said. “FPGAs can be a co-processor, doing secondary tasks so the graphics processor can focus on things like faster generation and vector rendering.”

Programmable devices will see strong growth in emerging areas such as these, but growth will slow after a few years as the applications settle out and standard devices can address more stable markets, he said. Automotive will be one of the fastest growing segments for the $1.2 billion company, Schulte said.

Market researcher iSuppli estimates that automotive represents only around 3% of the total market for programmable devices. However, the $100 million in 2007 revenue is 50% higher than 2006 revenues.

“Between 2006 and 2011, we expect growth of more than 20% per year, far and away the fastest growth segment,” said Jordan Selburn, Principal Analyst at iSuppli. “But that still means it will only be a couple hundred million by 2011."

He noted that the cost of custom solutions is changing in favor of programmable logic devices. “The cost of designing ASICs or other custom chips has gone up, and programmable logic prices have declined, with some under $1,” Selburn said. “The crossover point keeps changing in PLD’s favor.”

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