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With New Chips, Aquantia Attempts to Boost Car Connectivity

To avoid highway collisions and brake for pedestrians walking across a city street, autonomous cars need to make split second decisions. The cameras and other sensors embedded in the vehicle have to send lots of information with extremely low latency to the central processing units that act like the vehicle’s brains.

With increasing bandwidth and reliability requirements, the car’s electronic architecture is set to change. And Aquantia is the latest company trying to position its chips as the nuts and bolts of that new architecture. On Monday, it introduced a new line of networking chips for cars that transmit up to 10 gigabits per second over a single copper cable.

Aquantia provides connectivity chips for corporate data centers and server infrastructure. But with its new line of chips, it is trying to take advantage of the growing similarities between data centers and cars. Aquantia is getting into increasingly competitive market for chips that can untangle the miles of cabling in today’s cars.

Aquantia also said Monday that its connectivity chips would be used inside Nvidia’s Xavier chips and Pegasus computer system for autonomous driving to transmit raw images and other data from sensors. The company said that both platforms featuring its Ethernet chips would be available to automotive partners in the first quarter this year.

The Pegasus system puts the processing power required for fully driverless taxis into a circuit board the size of a license plate. It can process data from 16 different sensors so that an autonomous car can recognize cars and pedestrians around it, pinpoint its position on the road within centimeters, and plot out the safest route to its destination.

“The number one feature for self-driving vehicles is safety,” said Faraj Aalaei, chief executive of Aquantia, in a statement. “Vehicle sensors and cameras collect huge amounts of data that need instant processing to allow the vehicle to make critical decisions that ensure the safety of the driver, passengers, and anyone else sharing the road.”

The company’s chips are available as MAC and PHY in one package or as standalone MAC. That gives companies the flexibility to place the central processor and switch on the same board for chip-to-chip communication – or put these components on separate boards, having them communicate over copper cable.

Today’s cars are equipped more than a hundred electronic control units with microcontrollers that handle everything from windshield wipers to collision warnings. But as autonomous driving and infotainment grows more sophisticated, companies are starting to consider condensing functions into miniature supercomputers like Nvidia's Pegasus.

Aquantia could compete with Valens Semiconductor, which is manufacturing chips that encode information rather than simply transmit it over the car’s network. It uses the HDBaseT standard to transmit Ethernet as well as audio and video, control, USB, and a hundred watts of power simultaneously over a single unshielded copper cable, reducing cost and weight.

Marvell and Broadcom are also in the market for connected cars, which currently use 100 to 1000 megabit-per-second systems. Aquantia estimates that every autonomous vehicle will use around fifty networking chips – more than are technically needed but important for redundancy in case any one of the central processing units fails.

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