Now that Qualcomm’s multi-year effort to acquire NXP has been abandoned, the Dutch chipmaker is taking some of the $2 billion breakup fee it got to grow its core business. Already the leading semiconductor supplier to the auto industry, NXP is beefing up its in-vehicle networking capability by acquiring OmniPhy. OmniPhy’s technology will enable NXP to offer automotive-grade ethernet with speeds greater than 1 Gbps to help support the increasingly sensor laden vehicles that are coming to market in coming years.
Automakers have been building networks into vehicles since at least the early 1990s, mainly based on the old controller area network (CAN) standards originally developed by Bosch. CAN was an excellent system for its time, enabling electronic control units (ECU) in the vehicle to directly communicate peer-to-peer. However as the number and resolution of sensors in the vehicle explodes along with external connectivity, the bandwidth available from CAN in the low Mbps just is not up to the task anymore.
One of the solutions that the industry has been moving toward is ethernet, the same mechanism that powers most of the world’s computer networks already. That is where OmniPhy comes into the picture. NXP already has automotive ethernet that can support bandwidth up to about 100 Mbps, but the technology from OmniPhy will ramp that up to as much as 25 Gbps and beyond. Perhaps as important as the sheer speed is the ability to do it reliably over a single twisted pair of wires.
For engineers developing new vehicles, weight reduction is a key factor in achieving ever higher levels of efficiency. One of the heaviest single components in modern vehicles is the wiring harness which can weigh upwards of 200 pounds. As autonomous vehicles with dozens of new sensors approach along with more electrification, those harness will only get heavier.
Cut into a typical ethernet cable today that connects computers to routers or cable modems and you will find eight separate wires in four twisted pairs. Twisting the pairs of wires helps to mitigate the impacts of electromagnetic interference. Wherever electrons are flowing through wires, it creates an electromagnetic flux in the air around it that can induce flows through other nearby conductors. That is the core of what makes everything from electric motors to wireless charging function.
But when those wires are carrying huge amounts of data it can create havoc among those bits hence the multiple twisted pairs and shielding in most ethernet cables. Alexander E. Tan, vice president and general manager of Automotive Ethernet Solutions, NXP explains that OmniPhy developed its technology from the ground up as an automotive solution to survive in the harsh electromagnetic environment of the vehicle.
The OmniPhy automotive ethernet technologies are currently being qualified for automotive temperatures and the first applications at 1 Gbps or more are expected to launch by about 2020 with 10 Gbps applications arriving by the mid-2020s.