Mediatek Dives Into Cars, Head-End First

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The smart car gold rush is on. Mediatek, the best of the "fast follower" chipmakers constantly chasing Qualcomm's dominance of the smartphone space, announced today that it's not only developing chips for smart cars: it's going deep.

The company isn't announcing any specific chipsets today but rather a broad strategy. First, it'll roll out some chips for infotainment and telematics solutions, the sort of in-dash and in-seat stuff you see in today's cars. Those will probably use Mediatek's low-cost, low-power smartphone chipsets, the kind of things we've been seeing in a lot of recent Android tablets and smartphones.

But then it's going into computer vision, millimeter wave radar, sensor hubs and 5G—all the things you need for cars to drive themselves.

"We have a longer-term vision and focus on the major trend towards autonomous driving systems," Mediatek general manager for corporate sales Finbarr Moynihan said. "We'll have new developments around sensors and vision-based systems ... we'll also have a longer-term focus on vision data."

Mediatek has been talking to car makers for about two years, Moynihan said, gauging what they need. Opportunities have opened up as the potential vendors have been shrinking, backing away or consolidating; he pointed to Marvell and Nvidia as two companies that have downgraded their mobile capabilities in the past few years.

Mediatek, on the other hand, has kept smartphones and modems as its core business. As a result, it can provide integrated solutions with processors, vision systems, and multi-mode modems, much like Qualcomm and Intel can.

"Mediatek enabled over a billion consumer electronics product chipset solutions last year, a level of scale we believe is required to drive some of the more advanced technologies forward ... there's a scale play here that Mediatek has, that was can leverage," he said.

Mediatek's 2020 automotive plan looks tied to two big concepts: computer vision and 5G.

The company is developing a special "vision processing unit" that will "handle large amounts of real-time streaming data ... making it more comparable to human decision-making performance." That'll be tied to millimeter wave radar, which can be used at short distances for parking assistance and at longer distances to prevent the car from colliding with things on the road.

The company is a little more coy about 5G; Moynihan said he doesn't want to steal the thunder from potential 5G announcements later this year. But Mediatek is one of relatively few companies with a deep bench of 3G and 4G modem capabilities right now, and the company's automotive announcement calls out the millimeter wave radar data as something which may need 5G responsiveness.

While it's moving into cars, unlike Nvidia's strategy, Mediatek doesn't intend to back away from phones, Moynihan said. "This is an additive," he said. "We'll continue all the stuff we've been doing on mobile and home with consumers."

Moynihan said that Mediatek will make more specific announcements at CES in early January.

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