FPGAs are gaining ground under the hood

Sept. 1, 2007
While providing flexibility and reprogrammability to constantly changing automotive standards and protocols at cost-effective prices, field-programmable

While providing flexibility and reprogrammability to constantly changing automotive standards and protocols at cost-effective prices, field-programmable gate array (FPGA) suppliers are also striving to meet the stringent requirements of the automotive industry including ISO TS16949 certification, AEC-Q100 qualification flow and the production part approval process (PPAP) documentation. In addition, to demonstrate their commitment, they are developing packages that can handle wider operating temperatures of -40 °C to +125 °C.

Consequently, major suppliers like Xilinx, Actel and Altera are all ramping up their production and expanding their applications range for their respective programmable logic devices. From infotainment, multimedia and navigation applications, the FPGA suppliers are now venturing into subsystems like engine control, safety, lane-departure warning system and blind-spot detection.

Recently, Xilinx released five FPGA members in its Spartan-3A platform to volume production just five months after their introduction. The devices, which are used in rear-seat entertainment and satellite navigation system applications among others, include the XC3S50A, XC3S200A, XC3S400A, XC3S700A, and XC3S1400A. They are manufactured on 90 nm CMOS process technology. Concurrently, to further strengthen its position in the automotive market, the FPGA maker has also implemented FlexRay IP on its Spartan-3 A platform. The device interacts with the FlexRay middleware and protocol stack from Vector Informatik.

Now, Actel Corp. has announced that its low-power ProASIC3 FPGA family has achieved AEC-Q100, Grade 2 and Grade 1 qualification. Thus, passing a series of critical stress tests designed to ensure the quality, reliability and endurance of semiconductors in automotive applications. The supplier in Mountain View, Calif. claims Grade 1 ProASIC3 devices represent the industry's first FPGAs to achieve this quality level. The company also announced support for the PPAP — a process used by the automotive industry to ensure the availability of specific, in-depth documentation for all parts used in the automotive supply chain.

AEC-Q100, Grade 1 qualification now enables FPGA technology to move beyond in-cabin telematics and infotainment applications into system-critical applications such as powertrain, engine control modules and safety systems. “It's one thing to ensure that a device can operate in a car navigation or entertainment system, but to deliver an FPGA for system-critical applications with a zero defect goal is an entirely different animal,” said Martin Mason, director of silicon product marketing for Actel. “Until now, automotive manufacturers have engaged in the costly and complex design of application-specific devices because it was the only way to get the low power, reliability and endurance needed for the most demanding automotive systems. The flexibility of the ProASIC3 family enables widespread adoption of flash-based FPGAs in system-critical automotive applications.”

According to Actel, tier 1 supplier Delphi Corp. will be using ProASIC3 in a production engine control module, which is being designed into a heavy-duty diesel engine. These modules have been in production since June. In this application, the FPGA replaces an ASIC. Additionally, for low power, high reliability and small package, Magna Electronics has selected this device for its automotive vision systems.

“The low-power FPGAs required for high-temperature automotive applications are now critical for next-generation automotive electronics applications,” said Mike Williams, research vice president at Gartner. “An FPGA achieving an AECQ-100 Grade 1 qualification will enable automotive manufacturers to leverage FPGA technology in system-critical and space-constrained automotive applications.”

Meanwhile, Actel is also in the process of certifying its design, development and manufacturing operations to the rigorous TS 16949 worldwide automotive quality management system specification.

With continued growth of electronics, and time to market pressures, it is realistic to assume that FPGA solutions will continue to capture more sockets in the automotive space and gain more market share in the coming years.

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