Courtesy of Qualcomm

Qualcomm Wants To Jump Into The Electric Car Game With Its Digital Chassis

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When (and if) if the Afeela electric car from Sony Honda Mobility goes on sale, it will use the Snapdragon Digital Chassis from Qualcomm — an automotive technology platform that combines safety and connectivity systems, entertainment, customization, and upgradability all into one product. For automakers, finding the right technology partner means simplifying a vehicle’s architecture and unlocking new revenue streams in the form of passenger entertainment and downloadable upgrades.

The Qualcomm Snapdragon Digital Chassis is comprised of four automotive systems — Snapdragon Auto Connectivity includes connected systems like 5G and vehicle-to-vehicle technologies, Snapdragon Cockpit Platform supplies the digital instrument clusters and infotainment controls, Snapdragon Car-to-Cloud makes over-the-air software updates possible, and the Snapdragon Ride Platform supplies driver assistance technologies and autonomous driving capability.

“There is a tremendous amount of opportunity to reinvent the car,” Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm’s senior vice president and general manager for automotive, tells Wired. “And a tremendous amount of that reinvention is happening because the car is becoming a truly digital product.” He says today’s automakers need to envisage “a tremendous number of use cases” that may present themselves over the lifetime of a vehicle, and that these “require you to really think about the platform very differently.”

Qualcomm Snapdragon Digital Chassis Features

The Qualcomm Snapdragon Digital Chassis will allow manufacturers to benefit from faster development of connected systems. “If you think about the way the car architecture is being designed going forward, you have centralization of compute capabilities, larger processors in the car, built-in connectivity, safety features built-in,” Duggal says. “All of these require the car architecture to shift, and you need somebody who actually understands what it means to be able to build a platform.”

Duggal claims technology, software, and electrical architecture are among “the key differentiators” automakers will have to consider in a future where how a car drives no longer sets it apart from its rivals. “We have been working with every automaker for the past dozen years or so. We are clearly seeing trends that are common across what everybody needs. We include that in our platform, we provide a tremendous amount of software capability, integration capability — and that just allows automakers to move faster.”

To date, customers for the Qualcomm Digital Chassis include Sony Honda Mobility, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Cadillac, and Stellantis. The company also says it has received support for the new platform from BMW, Hyundai Motor Group, Nio, and Volvo. At a time when automakers are still struggling with semiconductor shortages, these manufacturers clearly hope to benefit from the supposed inherent simplicity offered by the Digital Chassis, Wired says.

Courtesy of Qualcomm

“At Qualcomm Technologies, we understand that automakers need unique, comprehensive and connected solutions to meet dynamic demands and power 21st century vehicles,” Duggal said in a press release last year. “By expanding our in-vehicle connectivity offerings to provide a transformative, scalable, extensive suite of solutions through the Snapdragon Digital Chassis, we are confident the automotive industry will be able to deliver the unmatched next-generation driving experiences customers deserve.”

“In the past, you would have a dozen different ECUs that were responsible for everything from displays to parking, to driver monitoring, to the audio and speakers,” he tells Wired. “All of that is getting integrated into a common platform. We are now seeing next generation architectures get reduced down to less than five main subsystems — cockpit for the in-car experience; telematics for in-car and cloud connectivity; driver assistance and automated driving systems;  in-car networking; and zonal controllers being the main ones.” Fewer chips mean lower costs for automakers.

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Drivers, Open Your Wallets!

All this electronic geewizardry is impressive, but it also opens the door to new revenue streams for automakers, thanks to the ability to install or unlock premium features for an additional fee. Qualcomm says it hopes its Digital Chassis will “inspire new business models for automakers” that go beyond merely selling and maintaining a car. Mercedes will soon ask drivers to pay $1,200 to unlock more performance that is hidden behind a paywall written into the computer code of its EVs. The latest version of the Polestar 2 can be made more powerful by purchasing the Performance Pack software update. Last year, BMW brought a storm of criticism down on itself when it asked owners to pay extra to unlock the heated seats in some models.

Finding a technology partner could soon be of utmost importance for car brands yet to fully embrace advanced infotainment, driver assistance, and connectivity systems. Lei Zhou, a partner at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting, told Wired it is “highly likely” that automakers that go it alone with their own technology are in danger of being left behind. The problems Volkswagen has experienced with its software for its ID. branded cars is well documented and may have been a key factor in moving Herbert Diess aside as CEO of Volkswagen Group.

Zhou added, “If conventional OEMs develop connected technologies with their current capabilities, they may find themselves left behind by emerging EV makers with IT backgrounds or OEMs that have partnered with powerful tech partners, significant value can be generated by collaboration with a variety of players, including technology and business fields.”

Whoever cuts the right deal with the strongest ally will secure the best position to succeed in what has become a rapidly evolving car industry — one that is now more reliant than ever on intelligent, connected technology; and entertainment if autonomous driving ever becomes reality. Wired says, “Those who go it alone, or pick their partners poorly, run the risk of being left behind.”

The Takeaway

“You can’t buy beer. You can only rent it,” some say. The same is becoming the norm for electric cars. Several decades ago, people listening to music and watching videos learned they could no longer buy music and movies; they could only obtain a digital license that limited their enjoyment of those products. The same is happening with cars. Even if you pay to unlock features like heated seats or more power, you may not be able to pass those enhancements on to the next owner.

This is the way the future will be as manufacturers attempt to monetize new technologies. Over-the-air updates are a two-way street. What can be download wirelessly can also be deactivated wirelessly. 

This got us talking during our monthly curry and lassi social at CleanTechnica global headquarters about whether there will be a market for no-frills cars that lack over-the-air update capability, cars that may have actual knobs and switches that control things in the passenger compartment, and that have only the driver-assistance features mandated by government safety agencies — simple cars that are cheap to buy and cheap to own and do the job of getting from Point A to Point B reliably without a lot of digital assistance. What’s the future of cars that give you precisely what you paid for — nothing more and nothing less?

Perhaps we are a bunch of Luddites, but that prospect seemed very appealing to the majority of us gathered around the virtual fire pit in the shrub garden behind the pickleball court.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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