Real-Time Processors Key to the Zonal E/E Revolution

A new generation of powerful, software-compatible processors is driving system consolidation and higher performance. An expert from NXP explains.

NXP said the S32 automotive platform is central to addressing automotive’s accelerating electrical/electronic (E/E) software/hardware consolidation. (NXP)

OEMs face major challenges with their vehicle architectures as they become more complex and unwieldy. They also want to speed up their innovation cycles while supporting intelligent safety and functional upgrades. By developing software-defined vehicle architectures rather than the conventional hardware approach, OEMs can consolidate engine control unit (ECU) functionality into more powerful multicore processors that support software isolation and upgradeability.

NXP’s scalable S32Z and S32E processors offer gigahertz performance, system integration and memory-expansion capabilities beyond today’s automotive MCUs. (NXP)

That’s according to Brian Carlson, NXP Semiconductors director of Global Products and Solution Marketing, who spoke with SAE Media about the company’s newest automotive-targeted processors and the trends that drove their development. The NXP S32 automotive platform, he said, is central to addressing automotive’s accelerating electrical/electronic (E/E) consolidation — both logically and physically and sometimes a combination of both. Logical consolidation, Carlson said, organizes functions into domains, while physical consolidation organizes functions based on their location within the vehicle into zones.

NXP’s current S32G processors already are enabling vehicle networking and service-oriented gateways, and the S32K microcontrollers target remote actuation and zonal control in the body and comfort domain. However, with the higher levels of ECU consolidation accelerating, there is a need for higher performance to meet the deterministic demands of software-defined vehicle real-time control applications.

“Today, and historically, automotive architectures have been what we call a ‘flat’ architecture – where there's a lot of boxes that get added incrementally as new functions come into the vehicle,” Carlson explained. “A lot of the innovations are new, are software-driven with the new boxes. ‘Domain’ is about centralizing these things more into ‘functional.’ Powertrain, body and comfort, infotainment, where all of those are grouped together from a software point of view, it's about software consolidation. You'll hear this over and over about ‘software-defined vehicles.’ I know it's overused, but truly, it's where the market's going.”

The domain focus isthe first step in the consolidation process. But “zonal” architectures, once projected for production beginning late this decade, are for a variety of reasons now on a quicker development pace, Carlson said. Zonal structures “are about simplifying the wiring, the architecture.” The roughly 100 control boxes in a vehicle today would be reduced to just four or five, he noted.

Functionalities enabled by the S32Z and S32E processors. (NXP)

Many of the major, high-volume OEMs are “definitely moving fast [on zonal electrical architectures],” he stressed. “They're leveraging the zonal approach in the 2025, 2026, 2027 timeframe. If you look at the OEMs, they've been adding new capabilities, trying to make this all work, it's been a challenge. And they see that they're investing $20 billion, $30 billion-type numbers into EVs, that's the future where everything's moving. That's what really has driven this faster move to zonal.”

Relationship between NXP’s S32Z2 and S32E2 real-time processors. (NXP)

Carlson said the transition to domain and zonal architectures is happening concurrently. “One's about software, one's about simplification of wiring and hardware. Getting rid of two- or three- inch cables and moving to redundant ethernet networks and doing processing at the ‘edges.’ In some cases, some customers will go faster to zonal, some cases they'll be more domain with some overlay of zonal.”

End-to-end consolidation with S32Z and S32E

Brian Carlson, NXP Semiconductors director of Global Products and Solution Marketing. (NXP)

The recent introduction of the NXP S32Z and S32E processors, Carlson said, extends the S32 automotive platform to provide safe, high-performance real-time processing for safety, control and actuation applications. As he outlined in an NXP technical paper shared with SAE Media, the combination of these S32Z, S32E, S32G and S32K families enables end-to-end vehicle domain and zonal architectures with common software and tools, which is attractive to automakers. NXP offers a scalable, compatible real-time roadmap that extends to 5 nm technology to design the consolidated and software-defined vehicles of the future.

Hosting propulsion domain control, electrification, and safety applications, NXP’s scalable S32Z and S32E processors offer gigahertz performance, system integration and memory-expansion capabilities beyond today’s automotive microcontrollers (MCUs). The S32Z processors target safe hosting of isolated, real-time processing; the S32E processors are software-compatible and add 5V analog and I/Os for actuation. With integrated actuation support, the S32E system solution brings developers significant cost and PCB savings, Carlson stated.

The S32Z and S32E processors have eight Arm Cortex-R52 processor cores running up to 1 GHz with split-lock support and dual-core lockstep Arm Cortex-M33 processor cores for system management. A floating-point vector digital signal processor (DSP) supports advanced math, predictive control algorithms and machine learning. The diverse, high-performance processing can enable vehicle innovations not possible with MCUs, according to Carlson.

With “core-to-pin” hardware virtualization, the processors isolate independent applications and implement memory and peripheral hardware firewalls and provide Quality of Service (QoS) assurance. This provides freedom from interference and a unique fault response for each isolated application, which allows operation to continue without a chip reset. This is critical for ECU consolidation and also allows parallel application development before integration.

With up to 64 MB of integrated non-volatile memory, as well as key LPDDR4 DRAM/flash expansion memory, the S32Z and S32E processors support execute-in-place (XiP), large, zero-downtime over-the-air (OTA) updates, and AUTOSAR Adaptive Platform applications. This enables support for larger, more complex real-time applications and future growth that is not possible with MCUs, according to NXP.

The S32Z and S32E processors help enable the automotive industry to accelerate the integration of diverse real-time applications. For instance, they can be used to implement a propulsion domain controller which consolidates the battery management system (BMS), engine management system (EMS), inverter control and power conversion control (Figure 3). In a real-time zonal control application, they can consolidate vehicle dynamics, braking, steering, and motor control within zones. Another key application is real-time safety processing such as in advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and automated driving.

Carlson sees new, high-capability processors that enable expanded use of domain and zonal architectures as vital to development of vehicles with increasing software-defined sophistication. Along with that, customer expectations won’t let up, either.

Carlson, who’s also had extensive experience in the cellphone sector, said the auto industry is at an inflection point. “The industry is going through a major transition on both the software side and the hardware side,” he asserted. “It's like going through heart surgery and brain surgery at the same time. This is a major undertaking and it's tens of billions of dollars per OEM that are investing to do this. But they realize that they had to make this change. If they did not make this change, they could become irrelevant. I've seen this happen in the mobile industry.”

Embedded hardware security

The S32Z and S32E, like all other S32 automotive platform processors, embed a high-performance hardware security engine (HSE). The firewalled HSE is the ‘root-of-trust’ supporting secure boot, security services and key management with protection against side-channel attacks. The processors are certified to ISO/SAE 21434 for cybersecurity.

Automotive software and hardware strategy is progressing toward zonal control to, among other advantages, streamline hardware cost and complexity. (NXP)

The S32Z and S32E processors provide fault-tolerance with fail-operational support for high availability across multiple applications and are certified for ISO 26262 ASIL D functional safety systems.

As with other processors in the S32 automotive platform, the new S32Z and S32E processors are enabled with hardware and software for evaluation, development and rapid prototyping, Carlson explained. That includes the ‘GreenBox 3’ development platform to support software development and rapid prototyping for multiple real-time use cases. The complete out-of-the-box system with advanced control applications, including example code, PMICs, Ethernet switch and transceivers, and CAN transceivers.

A wide range of value-add enablement software and tools, including the S32Z and S32E Vehicle Integration Platform (GreenVIP), help accelerate evaluation, development, proof-of-concept, and time-to-market.