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Progress in the Air: Q&A with Cypress Semiconductor

Firmware over-the-air updates and the growing importance of software in the vehicle.

Sven-Natus-CypressSven Natus, Head of Automotive Business Unit Americas at Cypress Semiconductor, believes “immediately” should mean “immediately.” And that’s a problem for traditional flash technology, as Sven explained during our recent EECatalog interview about how Cypress is working to make over-the-air updates something automotive OEMs can rely on. Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

EECatalog: Over-the-air updates are getting a lot of attention. Is the semiconductor industry overall prepared to support the growing demand for such things as firmware over-the-air (FOTA) updates?

Sven Natus, Cypress Semiconductor: No, one reason being that today flash macros allow you to either read the memory or to write it, but not to do both [actions] at the same time. So, based on Cypress having a broad portfolio of products, what we’ve proposed to customers and what we successfully demonstrated to all the major automotive OEMs, is that the high bandwidth that our HyperFlash memory (Figure 1) comes with permits us to execute code out of the external flash—this is the key feature that we need here—the execution of code without significant drop in performance for the microcontroller. HyperFlash allows us to do that. We are also able to connect two HyperFlash Memories to our Traveo microcontroller.

Figure 1: Bandwidth is key for achieving the execution of code without significant drop in performance for the microcontroller.

Figure 1: Bandwidth is key for achieving the execution of code without significant drop in performance for the microcontroller.

These two HyperFlash memories are completely independent of one another. So I can execute software out of one type of flash memory, while at the same time I can program the second type of flash memory with an updated version of the software. This is very attractive, because with this ability to execute and provide updates in the background there is no interruption in ECU [Electronic Control Unit] operation. A second advantage is that if there is a problem with the update, it’s possible to go back to the previous version because the HyperFlash memories always hold two complete software versions simultaneously.

EECatalog: Why is over-the-air functionality becoming popular?

Natus, Cypress Semiconductor: Over-the-air technology makes it possible to prevent numerous recalls on vehicles because now you can push updates into the vehicle remotely, saving a significant amount of money. And given the fact that software is becoming a more and more important part of the vehicle and also a more dominant part of the vehicle compared to the actual electronics, OTA helps to reduce the quality costs for the OEM because many of the recalls are software-related.

Second, OTA software updates can provide new features and that [functionality] could be combined with on demand features. You can imagine the user choosing from a menu of features he or she would like in the vehicle, and, as long as it is a purely software-enabled feature, it can be downloaded.

EECatalog: You’re seeing software as gaining in importance?

Natus, Cypress Semiconductor: Yes, software is becoming a more and more important part of the vehicle, and we also see that the time to market is getting shorter. Vehicles are getting more complex.

Over the last few years Cypress has become more involved in software development, and today software is a key aspect of our business. The software products that go along with our semiconductor solutions make it easier for our customers because the more we can abstract the hardware level, the easier it will be for customers to use our solutions. They won’t have to deal with a multi-thousand page hardware manual in order to understand how the semiconductor works.

EECatalog: How soon will we see vehicles ready for firmware over-the-air updates?

Natus, Cypress Semiconductor: We are already working with OEMs on these concepts—this is something we are actively pursuing today. Given all the lead time [required] for development of vehicles, which, typically, once we start working with the Tier 1’s it’s around three years until the sales orders, so by 2019 we’ll see these vehicles coming out.

EECatalog: What should we expect to see as autonomous vehicle development gets under way?

Natus, Cypress Semiconductor: We will see lots of requirements with regard to data storage—just think about the liability in case of an accident—how do you prove that your vehicle did not do anything wrong? So in that case you need to have a solution that permits you to store all kinds of sensor data real time and permanently—immediately.

And immediately means immediately. Typical flash technology requires some time to be programmed and sometimes, in the case of an accident, you might not even have that time. To address that Cypress is offering F-RAM technology, which permits you to write it immediately as RAM, but it is a nonvolatile RAM, so it can store data instantaneously—this is an important aspect going forward when we look at storing data in the vehicle.

What is also important to know about the F-RAM is that the write cycles go in dimensions of 1014, so a trillion write cycles, which is more than you would ever need for the lifetime of the vehicle. It’s highly reliable technology.

EECatalog: What are some other ways Cypress is preparing for the embedded automotive electronics world ahead?

Natus, Cypress Semiconductor: The recent acquisition of Broadcom’s IoT wireless division enhances our portfolio with wireless technology. With Bluetooth’s low energy connectivity in our portfolio, plus the full Bluetooth stack as well as WiFi technology, will be of great importance, not only for connectivity inside the vehicle, but also for Vehicle-to-Infrastructure and Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication.

At this time we are trying to expand our portfolio strategically. We don’t want to be a traditional semiconductor supplier that provides you with a single chip. We really try to provide our customers with complete solutions. We are successfully doing that today in some markets, and we want to extend these capabilities to other arenas.

EECatalog: Are there more items on the “shopping list”?

Natus, Cypress Semiconductor: Certainly given the complexity of a vehicle, there are parts of the puzzle that are missing with Cypress to achieve that goal. On the other hand, we don’t want to become a Tier 1 or compete with our customers, but you can expect to see more from Cypress moving forward, and you will also certainly see us extend our portfolio.

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