Self-developed baseband chips, self-developed radio frequency chips, self-developed autonomous driving chips… In the past month, news about Apple’s self-developed chips has spread like wildfire, and the stock prices of its major supply chain manufacturers have also fluctuated. From computing chips to communication chips, to automotive chips, Apple’s self-research road is like “fighting monsters and upgrading”, and the goal is getting more and more difficult. Can Apple’s R&D strength and supply chain integration capabilities help it cross the high threshold of automotive chips?
The “brain” of the self-driving market is about to debut?
Apple’s car-building plan has experienced ups and downs, but it has been surging. In 2014, Apple launched the “Titan” program with the goal of self-driving electric vehicles. However, due to factors such as development direction, organizational structure, and technical challenges, the focus of research and development has shifted from car manufacturing to autonomous driving systems. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in 2017 that Apple is developing an autonomous driving system and regards it as an important core technology.
“We’re focusing on self-driving systems, and we’re going to expand into self-driving and beyond,” Tim Cook said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “We see it as the cradle of all AI projects, and it’s where we work on. The most difficult AI project ever.”
Tim Cook’s positioning of the autonomous driving system also explained Apple’s recent adjustment to the project’s organizational structure. It is reported that Apple has handed over the development team of the self-driving system to John Giannandrea, senior vice president of machine learning and artificial intelligence strategy, which will be used in the cars produced by Apple.
Apple’s product line has always paid attention to walking on “two legs”, and software deployment and strengthening of core hardware dominance are always synchronized. Since the beginning of this year, Apple has successively applied for patents around perception, safety, and in-car entertainment, such as a “multi-sensor real-time alignment and calibration” system for surrounding environment perception, steering systems, body structural ventilation, and LiDAR-based obstacle detection systems.
But based on the layout of the sensing system, it is not enough to build an autonomous driving architecture. Sensors are the sensory organs of autonomous vehicles. They are responsible for the perception level. To make decisions and execute the information collected by the sensors, they also need computing and control chips that are responsible for the work of the brain. It is reported that Apple is cooperating with TSMC to develop self-driving chip technology, and plans to build a factory to produce “Apple Car” chips, and negotiate with the supply chain.
Can R&D and supply chain be combined to break through the barriers of the automotive industry?
If the launch of the A-series mobile phone chips is to make Apple’s self-developed “fight to fame”, the emergence of the M1 chip further ignites the market’s enthusiasm for Apple’s self-developed system. Teng Ran, deputy general manager of CCID Consulting Integrated Circuit Research Center, told reporters that the smooth launch of Apple’s A series and M1 was first due to Apple’s excellent R&D capabilities, including a large R&D team and continuous and stable R&D investment. Secondly, due to Apple’s relatively closed ecological model, it has obvious advantages in software and hardware collaborative calibration and matching. Thirdly, it is due to Apple’s perfect system integration capability from the aspects of chip-hardware-software-system, which provides a good way for the rapid iterative upgrade of products.
At present, the processor chip is only the beginning of Apple’s self-development road. On December 11, US time, Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, revealed that Apple has started the development of its first baseband chip. The release of the news once caused the stock price of Apple’s baseband chip supplier Qualcomm to drop.
Industry experts pointed out to reporters that for computing chips, since ARM and other companies already have mature IP and reference designs, chip designers can purchase IP and reference designs to combine products like Lego, and optimize them through optimization. Strength makes a difference in performance. The biggest difficulty of wireless communication chips lies in the design of the communication physical layer and protocol stack, which requires extremely complex design and test verification, including a large number of laboratory tests and field tests, and the product stability cycle is many years.
The difficulty of research and development of automotive chips lies in the stricter reliability and certification standards. “Compared with consumer electronics chips, autonomous driving chips have a longer R&D cycle and industrialization cycle. In terms of technology, the stability and consistency of chips are especially valued. In terms of capital, chip companies need long-term investment, and the R&D period generally exceeds 5 In terms of certification, it is necessary to obtain dual certification from Tier 1 manufacturers and car manufacturers, which takes a long time.” Teng Ran said.
The pursuit of intelligence in autonomous driving makes chip design even more difficult. Huang Jipo, chairman of Saiteng Microelectronics, once told reporters that in the whole process of the evolution of automobiles to intelligent systems, due to the increasing regulations on safety and environmental protection, the computing and control chips represented by MCU have become more and more important. high demands. In particular, the architecture of automotive Electronic control has increasingly adopted the execution architecture of domain controller plus many ECUs, and domain controller requires higher computing power, more powerful network interface and lower power consumption, all of which are important The R&D capabilities and chip manufacturing process of chip companies put forward higher requirements.
Fortunately, Apple is not alone. While laying out software and hardware, the supply chain industry has already heard the news. Digitimes reported that Apple has already launched cooperation talks with the automotive electronics supply chain. In addition to TSMC’s plan and Apple’s establishment of a factory to develop automotive chips, it will also use gallium nitride technology to help consumer and commercial vehicles develop towards electrification. At the same time, Foxconn, Apple’s long-term supplier, has also recently entered the field of electric vehicles.
Judging from the 6-year license agreement signed by Apple and Qualcomm, Apple has the expectation of a protracted battle for the baseband self-developed chips, as is the “Titan” plan accumulated over 6 years. Foreign media predict that the “Apple Car” is expected to be unveiled in 2024 or 2025, which means that the overall development cycle of Apple’s car manufacturing may be more than ten years. What kind of product form will the “Apple Car”, which has been sharpened for ten years, take, and how it will connect with Apple’s existing product lines in the future, also arouses expectations from all parties.