Driving Higher Energy Efficiency in Automotive Electronics Designs

William Ruby

Jan 17, 2024 / 4 min read

Advancements in automotive electronics are proceeding at a breathtaking pace. Sophisticated driver assistance systems, smart safety features, and dazzling infotainment systems are now present in vehicles across the price range, and not just limited to the high end of the product line or premium marques. And although the demise of the internal combustion engine (ICE) has been greatly exaggerated, electric vehicles (EVs) now represent a viable alternative to gasoline-powered cars, utility vehicles, and trucks for many customers.

Central to many of these capabilities are silicon chips. Industry sources estimate that now there are over 1,000 integrated circuits (ICs), or chips, in an average ICE car, and twice as many in an average EV. Such a large amount of electronics translates into kilowatts of power being consumed – equivalent to a couple of dishwashers running continuously. For an ICE vehicle, this puts a lot of stress on the vehicle’s electrical and charging system, leading automotive manufacturers to consider moving to 48V systems (vs. today’s mainstream 12V systems). These 48V systems reduce the current levels in the vehicle's wiring, enabling the use of lower cost smaller-gauge wire, as well as delivering higher reliability. For EVs, higher energy efficiency of on-board electronics translates directly into longer range – the primary consideration of many EV buyers (second only to price). Driver assistance and safety features often employ redundant component techniques to ensure reliability, further increasing vehicle energy consumption. Lack of energy efficiency for an EV also means more frequent charging, further stressing the power grid and producing a detrimental effect on the environment. All these considerations necessitate the need for a comprehensive energy-efficient design methodology for automotive ICs.

automotive electronics design

Why Today’s Vehicles Demand More Compute Power

Classification and processing of massive amounts of data from multiple sources in automotive applications – video, audio, radar, lidar – results in a high degree of complexity in automotive ICs as software algorithms require large amounts of compute power. Hardware architectural decisions, and even hardware-software partitioning, must be done with energy efficiency in mind. There is a plethora of tradeoffs at this stage:

  • Flexibility of a general-purpose CPU-based architecture vs. efficiency of a dedicated digital signal processor (DSP) vs. a hardware accelerator
  • Memory sub-system design: how much is required, how it will be partitioned, how much precision is really needed, just to name a few considerations

In order to enable reliable decisions, architects must have access to a system that models, in a robust manner, power, performance, and area (PPA) characteristics of the hardware, as well as use cases. The idea is to eliminate error-prone estimates and guesswork.

To improve energy efficiency, automotive IC designers also must adopt many of the power reduction techniques traditionally used by architects and engineers in the low-power application space (e.g. mobile or handheld devices), such as power domain shutoff, voltage and frequency scaling, and effective clock and data gating. These techniques can be best evaluated at the hardware design level (register transfer level, or RTL) – but with the realistic system workload. As a system workload – either a boot sequence or an application – is millions of clock cycles long, only an emulation-based solution delivers a practical turnaround time (TAT) for power analysis at this stage. This power analysis can reveal intervals of wasted power – power consumption bugs – whether due to active clocks when the data stream is not active, redundant memory access when the address for the read operation doesn’t change for many clock cycles (and/or when the address and data input don’t change for the write operation over many cycles), or unnecessary data toggles while clocks are gated off.

To cope with the huge amount of data and the requirement to process that data in real time (or near real time), automotive designers employ artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, both in software and in hardware. Millions of multiply-accumulate (MAC) operations per second and other arithmetic-intensive computations to process these algorithms give rise to a significant amount of wasted power due to glitches – multiple signal transitions per clock cycle. At the RTL stage, with the advanced RTL power analysis tools available today, it is possible to measure the amount of wasted power due to glitches as well as to identify glitch sources. Equipped with this information, an RTL design engineer can modify their RTL source code to lower the glitch activity, reduce the size of the downstream logic, or both, to reduce power.

Working together with the RTL design engineer is another critical persona – the verification engineer. In order to verify the functional behavior of the design, the verification engineer is no longer dealing just with the RTL source: they also have to verify the proper functionality of the global power reduction techniques such as power shutoff and voltage/frequency scaling. Doing so requires a holistic approach that leverages a comprehensive description of power intent, such as the Unified Power Format (UPF). All verification technologies – static, formal, emulation, and simulation – can then correctly interpret this power intent to form an effective verification methodology.

Power intent also carries through to the implementation part of the flow, as well as signoff. During the implementation process, power can be further optimized through physical design techniques while conforming to timing and area constraints. Highly accurate power signoff is then used to check conformance to power specifications before tape-out.

Automotive Electronics Design and Verification Flow to Enhance Energy Efficiency

Synopsys delivers a complete end-to-end solution that allows IC architects and designers to drive energy efficiency in automotive designs. This solution spans the entire design flow from architecture to RTL design and verification, to emulation-driven power analysis, to implementation and, ultimately, to power signoff. Automotive IC design teams can now put in place a rigorous methodology that enables intelligent architectural decisions, RTL power analysis with consistent accuracy, power-aware physical design, and foundry-certified power signoff. 

Learn more about the Synopsys energy-efficient solution today.

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