Jack Ganssle, Editor of The Embedded Muse Jack Ganssle's Blog
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The Easy Solution to the Automotive Chip Shortage

 Sometimes one comes across a solution to a problem that is so mind-numbingly ridiculous one has to scream "enough!"

We've all heard about how the automotive industry is suffering from a shortage of chips. When the pandemic hit they cut back on semiconductor orders, anticipating a slowdown in sales. That didn't happen and now $50k cars are parked waiting for $0.50 MCUs.

According to this September 17, 2021  piece in Fortune, the problem is that car makers rely on parts with 45 to 90 nm geometry when they should be thinking 16 nm. Indeed, Intel's chief executive Pat Gelsinger berated them for this poor decision making, and says he's willing to "make them as many Intel 16 [nanometer] chips as they want."     

Obviously, Mr. Gelsinger has a point. Why use a ten cent MCU to control a window motor when a $300 Intel Inside® microprocessor can raise that window in nanoseconds? Customers are sick of waiting literally for seconds for windows to raise and lower. And using a Core I7 processor means the windows can use Windows 11 which will provide (according to Microsoft) "A new Windows experience bringing you closer to the people and things you love." Studies have shown that drivers are more than willing to wait in their driveways for a half hour for the frequent OS upgrades to install when the benefit is being closer to the people you love, including the screaming kids.

Of course, the $300 CPU will need 16 GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard disk, network controller for OS updates, and a 32-layer PCB. At some 100 amps figure on a pair of 2/0 battery cables to feed the thing. With luck the 0.605" diameter of those cables won't impede smooth door openings and closings all that much, and the buck-a-foot price multiplied by the 50 to 100 controllers in the average car won't affect the vehicle's sales price by more than 50% or so. Counter-rotating cooling fans will prevent the vehicle from spinning on its axis at power-up.      

At 100+ watts per processor the car's air conditioner would have to be beefed up to a three-ton unit. But that would fit comfortably on the roof. Many vehicles come with towing hitches, which could conveniently tow the cooling unit's 20kW generator. Quick-disconnect 200 conductor 2/0 cable connectors are in development.

I guess the corollary to this thinking is that using (gasp!) 8 bit MCUs instead of the latest in processor technology is engineering malpractice. What designer would consign his products to dead-end 45 nm technology? Sure, it is cheap, proven reliable, and a good fit for the application. But the benefits of higher cost, lower reliability, longer startup times and massive profits for Intel are just too obvious to state. 

The article in Fortune concludes: "If semiconductor suppliers like Intel and Qualcomm have their way, however, the days of the auto industry relying on these cheap commodity chips are numbered." (Emphasis added)

Ya think?

(It's strangely appropriate that when writing this I wanted to go to Microsoft's site for the quote above, but based on my browsing history Firefox suggested "Microchip" instead.)

Feel free to email me with comments.

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