The Veoneer – Qaulcomm collaboration deal announced this week is a good reminder that the game of musical chairs among semiconductor companies, Tier Ones and car OEMs has never stopped on the AV-stack and SoC platform fronts. Indeed, Covid-19 might have contributed to a further reorganization of alliances among automotive players, as suggested by Egil Juliussen, an independent automotive industry analyst.
Cristian Amon, president of Qualcomm, and Jan Carlson, CEO of Veoneer, a Stockholm-based Tier One company, joined a conference call Thursday to unveil their partnership deal. Under the agreement, they will marry a “perception and driving policy stack” developed by Veoneer to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Ride Platform for ADAS and autonomous vehicles.
Although the companies kept quiet on the names of their competitors during the call, two things stood out on the shifting AV landscape.
First, the Veoneer-Qualcomm team has squarely set its sights on Intel/Mobileye.
The two companies claimed their solution will be “a true alternative” to existing suppliers (meaning Mobileye) as it offers an “open system” to Tier Ones and OEMs. Explicit in a comment repeated several times in the call is that Mobileye’s solution is “a black box” with little wiggle room for Tier Ones to make changes or build inside the box.
Second, Veoneer is ditching Nvidia for Qualcomm.
Veoneer’s CEO Carlson clarified the company’s commitment to Qualcomm’s SoC platform. Asked if the partnership is exclusive, Carlson said, “We have no intention to go into any other relationship for SoC partnership. We picked Qualcomm here.”
Veoneer’s past relationship with Nvidia is no secret. Two years ago, Veoneer and Zenuity, a 50-50 joint venture between Veoneer and Volvo Cars, touted a newly developed board called Zeus. Veoneer did the hardware and basic software, and Zenuity handled AV software stack development and vehicle integration. Zeus is based on the scalable architecture of NVIDIA DRIVE AGX Xavier and runs the NVIDIA DRIVE OS operating system.
Given its Zenuity experience, Juliussen explained to EE Times that Veoneer is a small Tier One but is hardly a novice developer of AV stacks.
Juliussen also pointed out that Veoneer and Volvo split Zenuity this year. The process of dividing up Zenuity was completed just last month. Veoneer at that time noted in its press release, “As part of the split, Veoneer received IP licenses,” and acknowledged that it beefed up its software and systems team with around 200 software engineers who left Zenuity to join Veoneer. A media report noted that Veoneer “expects to achieve annual savings of around $30 million and $40 million as a result of the split.” Juliussen speculated that the Covid economy might have led to the Zenuity split.
Win for Qualcomm
All in all, Juliussen sees the partnership between Veoneer and Qualcomm as a “win-win” for both. However, he stressed that ADAS is “only a part of the reasons why Veoneer is a good move for Qualcomm.” More significantly, Veoneer is a Tier One that is “strong in safety systems” Juliussen said, this “will give Qualcomm better access to OEMs and make it easier to expand in future AVs.”
Phil Magney, founder and principal advisor of VSI Labs, observed, “While Qualcomm has yet to make significant inroads into automotive, they have always been a player on the telematics side and are well poised to dominate in V2X.” Nonetheless, “Outside of that, Qualcomm has not been much of a player in ADAS and AV.”
In Magney’s opinion, their “partnership with Veoneer is necessary [for Qualcomm] to get to the finish line.” After all, none of the chip companies currently in the market has the resources to handle building out the final platform, he said. “And Veoneer has got street credibility when it comes to ADAS.”
Alternative to Mobileye
One talking point repeated several times during the conference call by Veoneer and Qualcomm was that they would deliver to Tier Ones and OEMs in the first half of 2023 “a true alternative” to Mobileye.
But what would it take for the two companies to convince Tier Ones or OEMs to go with them instead of Mobileye, given the Israeli-company has made much deeper inroads in the current ADAS market than any other chip vendors?
Magney said, “Honestly, there are a lot of alternatives to Mobileye. And they all claim openness too.” He suggested, “What they need to do is to demonstrate that their solution works as well as a Mobileye solution.”
Qualcomm realizes it doesn’t have the expertise to build out algorithms past the perception stage, according to Magney, so it sought a partnership with Veoneer. The companies “mentioned driving policy is a critical area, which I agree.” Couple this with Veoneer’s ability to integrate to automotive quality standards, Magney said, “you have got a shot at it.”
Magney also added that the Veoneer/Qualcomm team “needs to support the scalability of their platforms as well as their tool chains.”
At this point, Toyota and Mercedes Benz are the only major car OEMs not embracing Mobileye for their ADAS solutions. Who, then, would Veoneer/Qualcomm have to go after?
That, Juliussen acknowledged, is the problem. “Mobileye is so entrenched in current systems.” The target must be next-generation systems, he said. “ADAS is moving to Domain ECUs where individual ADAS ECUs are combined for cost, space savings and other advantages.” That would be the opening for Veoneer/Qualcomm.
Game is hardly over on ADAS
Magney maintains that while a lot of companies use Mobileyes’ EyeQ chips for ADAS, “I don’t think anyone is really married to anyone at this point. We have seen lots of moves here and there that show hedging against prime partners.”
He explained, “There are lots of programs for next-gen solutions that are still open. Qualcomm has pretty good support right now in automotive” although many of them are “connectivity related.” He added, “When you look at their ecosystem of partners it is a pretty solid lineup and includes QNX, Elektrobit, Trimble, Infineon, TomTom, Green Hills, etc.”
Although neither Qualcomm’s Amon nor Veoneer’s Carlson mentioned GM during the call, it’s entirely possible their first big ADAS design win could come from General Motors.
Qualcomm, when it rolled out the new Snapdragon Ride Platform at CES this year and described it as “scalable,” touted the company’s commitment to becoming a key player in ADAS. At the CES press conference, Qualcomm also mentioned that GM is working with Qualcomm on ADAS, seeking to prove that the world’s largest mobile chip company has a foot in the door in the ADAS market. Qualcomm, however, has never detailed its ADAS deal, other than mentioning GM.
Meanwhile, Veoneer is no stranger to GM, either. Veoneer was named a GM Supplier of the Year earlier this year, as one of “the 116 of its best suppliers from 15 countries that have consistently exceeded GM’s expectations.” This is the 2nd time Veoneer has received the award.
How good is Qualcomm?
During the conference call, Qualcomm’s president Amon called the partnership with Veoneer “a very important milestone” for Qualcomm to provide “very competitive solutions” for ADAS market opportunities.
As Magney noted, “It’s important to note that Qualcomm has quietly been building up solutions” for other automotive domains [than ADAS] including infotainment, instrument cluster and precision localization.” Mangey also mentioned Qualcomm’s announcement of a deal with GM as part of the Snapdragon Ride platform rollout. “But not much is known about that program,” he added.
“I don’t doubt the Snapdragon architecture would enable efficient processing of neural networks in an embedded automotive environment, but I don’t know if there is anything unique that would set them apart from other chip makers. The Snapdragon Ride architecture on paper looks great. But without getting our (VSI Labs) hands on it we have no way to know how it would stack up against Intel, Nvidia, ARM, TI or NXP.”
Qualcomm’s Stealth Program More ADAS than AV
In any event, said Magney, Qualcomm “cannot afford to not pursue ADAS and AV. The market will be significant to Qualcomm over the years and decades to come.” He said that Qualcomm’s “anchor is connectivity and we all know how important that becomes to the maintenance of AI-based driving applications.”
Veoneer’s current-generation software stacks are automotive-grade solutions designed to meet the requirements of automakers, regulators and rating agencies globally, according to Veoneer. The company “has received top performance ratings and enabled automakers to achieve 5-star safety ratings for European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) in 2018 and 2020.” Veoneer and Qualcomm “plan to launch a state-of-the art automotive grade, functional safety compliant and optimized platform, which will include a full range of optimized NCAP features and up to hands-free driving on highways and slow-moving traffic. The platform will be continuously upgradeable through over the air updates,” promised the two companies.
By teaming with Qualcomm, Veoneer will no longer remain just a Tier One. It will morph into a key technology supplier of AV software stacks (Perception and Driving Policy) to be integrated into Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Ride platform. Qualcomm, then, will sell the turnkey solution to tier ones (Veoneer’s competitors included) and car OEMs.
Juliussen expects Qualcomm’s integrated hardware/software solutions to become popular “especially among tier ones,” since their business is to develop what car OEMs need. Tier ones now have prospects to customize or build on Qualcomm’s solution, if it is indeed the promised non-proprietary system.