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NXP's BlueBox Bids To Be The Brains of Your Car

Everyone want to supply the brains to tomorrow's cars—because that's where the money is

2 min read
NXP's BlueBox Bids To Be The Brains of Your Car
Illustration: Harry Campbell

NXP, the Netherlands-based purveyor of automotive semiconductors, today launched a smart-car computing system called BlueBox that knits together devices that the company already sells.

“We already build processors for radar, vision, and LIDAR, and we see these systems now being combined,” says Bob Conrad, who heads NXP’s automotive microcontroller business.

He spoke from his Austin, Texas, office, where he’d worked for Freescale until last year, when NXP bought it for US $12 billion. That acquisition created what NXP now says is the largest supplier of automotive semiconductors in the world.

Others might regard that claim as a bit of a challenge. Particularly Nvidia. BlueBox can be viewed, in part, as a riposte to the Drive PX package that Nvidia began offering to car makers last year as the basis for the brains of their own systems (notably electric racing cars)

Conrad pooh-poohs Nvidia’s methods: “They have no intermediate processors, and that’s not the way people do it today, not how they bundle options on cars. It’s a Big Bang approach; I’m not saying it will never happen, but it’s not what’s happening now.”

He maintains that NXP’s business has the edge because it doesn’t depend on when or even if self-driving cars become the rule. “About 80 percent of the silicon content is in Level 3,” he says, referring to a standard category of autonomy, in which the car drives itself but the human must always be prepared to grab the wheel (think Google car). “Levels 4 and 5 are only the last 20 percent of silicon content.” 

Level 4 cars let you sit back, tune out, and read a book. Level 5 cars won’t even allow you to intervene: they don’t even have a steering wheel.

Both Nvidia and NXP are putting themselves in the limelight more than usual for companies that supply ingredients instead of a final product. Even their products’ names—Drive PX, BlueBox—slip trippingly off the tongue.

It’s all part of the auto industry’s scramble for the new, data-driven core of the business. Everyone wants to claim dominion over the value-added brains of the car and leave the rapidly commodifying brawn to the OEMs.

It’s all happened before. A memorable example occurred in the PC business, when, back in the early 1990s, Intel broke precedent by advertising as a product what had until then been a mere component. Its “Intel Inside” campaign turned a bland corporate name into a buff, best-selling brand.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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