Power-based chips to boost safety controls in cars

STMicroelectronics and Freescale announce speedy chips based on the 32-bit Power architecture to boost car safety and fuel efficiency

An airbag's timely release is critical in saving lives during an accident, and the discharge could become even more efficient if new chips announced Friday live up to expectations.

STMicroelectronics and Freescale Semiconductor on Friday separately announced new microcontroller units (MCUs) -- also called minicomputers -- based on 32-bit Power architecture that can boost a car's safety by speeding up chips that monitor and control functions like airbag release and brake control. The new MCUs are based on technology the companies jointly developed.

Big advances in car technology, like engine management and safety functions, have propelled chip makers to speed up MCUs to handle even more functions, said Ray Cornyn, director for automotive microcontroller products at Freescale. For example, as fuel efficiency becomes a rising concern, more processing power is needed to control fuel consumption with better engine control and ignition timing.

One of STMicroelectronics' new processors, the MPC560xP MCU, adds more processing power to safety controls of vehicles, which also include controlling brakes and stability. Over the last 10 years, new functionality has been added to airbag systems, and the new 32-bit chips provide the horsepower needed to run safety checks to ensure the systems are running and deployed correctly, Cornyn said.

The MCU is a system-on-chip that executes small but sometimes important car functions, like brake control, air conditioning and seat adjustments, said Michael Markowitz, a spokesman for STMicroelectronics. It is not a general-purpose processor; each MCU is targeted at a certain peripheral that performs a specific function.

"The objective is to make the hardware meet the performance requirements ... and not over-design it, as nobody is going to pay for features they don't use," Markowitz said.

STMicroelectronics and Freescale also individually introduced other new MCUs, based on designs they jointly developed for motor control, managing instruments like displays, and to control body electronics like lights and doors. Freescale's chips should reach cars in the next few years, Cornyn said.

The MCUs will be manufactured on a 90-nanometer technology and were developed as part of a joint design program the companies initiated in January 2006. Freescale originally developed the embedded Power architecture with IBM in the 1990s when Freescale was a division of Motorola.

The new MCUs can run at up to 100Mhz and include up to 1.5M bytes of flash memory, Cornyn said. Until a few years ago, processors ran as slow as 10Mhz.

Both companies declined to name customers for the new chips.

The automakers usually develop their own applications for MCUs based on internal car design, Cornyn said. Freescale will provide development tools and offer support for Autosar, a generic OS for MCUs developed by a consortium of car and semiconductor companies. The OS, which will be implemented in automotive MCUs in the next few years, should make it easier for modules to communicate, Cornyn said.

As the vehicle landscape changes, the development of microcontrollers will be driven by high-performance applications like telematics and radar for active cruise control, which demand more horsepower and memory. Freescale will keep adding cores to boost processing power to meet those requirements, Cornyn said. Last year, the company released a multicore 32-bit MCU for an electronic braking system along with Continental, an electronic brake supply company.

Powerful MCUs will also be needed for hybrids and cars running on fuel-cells, which run more functions on MCUs than conventional cars, Cornyn said. The company is also mulling development of 64-bit MCUs, though it hasn't seen the need for it yet.

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