Lee: IAA Mobility 2021 presented a new architecture for the car

Leonard Lee

The largest automotive event in the world, IAA Mobility 2021, was held in Munich last week. According to VDA (German Association of the Automotive Industry), over 400,000 participants attended their inaugural event. Quite an achievement for a live industry event during a global pandemic.

The event program covered a wide gamut of mobility topics ranging from e-bikes to metaverse to the latest in electric vehicles and drew a venerable host of statespersons and industry leaders. What was my focus for the event? I was most interested in what the big chipmakers had to say about the future of transportation.

Fortunately, the event featured the heavyweights in the semiconductor industry on the main stage of IAA Mobility, most notably, Cristano Amon, CEO of Qualcomm and Pat Gelsinger, CEO of Intel. Both business leaders presented back-to-back keynotes that offered common and divergent perspectives on the role of silicon and connectivity in the future of the car. Collectively, Cristano and Pat outlined an ambitious future for the car founded on the projection of digital technologies of the data center and smartphone on the automobile.

Both Cristano and Pat emphasized the importance of silicon in enabling the intelligence of the car as it takes on increasingly automated and autonomous functions. Whether you call it a “digital chassis” or an “autonomous chassis”, the CEOs asserted that the car is becoming increasingly digital and software-defined device. The idea of the digital chassis has become prominent in the past year as the big semiconductor players take on a more system-oriented perspective on the digitization of the car. As Cristano put it, “The digital chassis requires technologies to enable all those capabilities as a system.”

Along with the digitization of the car, both companies plugged their breed of automotive systems on chip (SoCs) which they asserted would bring about a reimagining of the electronic and digital architecture of the car. The consensus between Pat and Cristano was that auto manufacturers have an opportunity to simplify and consolidate the electronic system designs of vehicles through the adoption of newer semiconductor and interconnect technologies.

Moreover, Pat highlighted the issues that the automotive industry is currently facing with the chip shortage primarily affecting older node chip supplies. He posited, “Do we want to invest in our past or do we want to invest in the future?”--suggesting that automakers consider using leading edge silicon to mitigate future supply chain issues while also “migrating old designs to more modern nodes setting them up for increased supply and flexibility into the future.”

Unsurprisingly, Cristano advocated the critical role that 5G will play in the digital transformation of the car by touting the importance of vehicles communicating with infrastructure and elements operating on and surrounding it such as pedestrians, traffic lights, and other vehicles. CV2X (cellular vehicle-to-everything) was the centerpiece of his thesis for how the car will be connected to the “Connected Intelligent Edge” to enable smarter and safer operation.

Aside from a friendly nod to Qualcomm in a mention of “pervasive connectivity” as one of four “superpower” technologies, Pat and his Intel colleagues and partners spent most of their energy on their autonomous driving centered narrative. During the keynote, Intel unveiled their first Mobileye robotaxi service called Moovit which they acquired in May of 2020. They also announced a partnership with SIXT to launch a SAE Level 4 autonomous taxi service in Germany: a first.

Intel’s message to the auto industry - the car is a computer on wheels.

In contrast, the core of Cristano’s perspective on the future of transportation was anchored on the idea that the car will be persistently connected to the cloud with computing and services distributed between vehicles and compute resources residing along the Connected Intelligent Edge and the central cloud. The vision he outlined was less about aspirational autonomous driving objectives, more about enabling a more distributed computing model for the future of transportation that focuses on power efficiency and collaborative computing that taps the massive compute power of the cloud from anywhere.

Qualcomm’s message to the auto industry – “You cannot think of the car as putting a server in the trunk of a car.”

As an analyst, the divergence in perspective between Qualcomm and Intel was the most poignant aspect of the debate on the digital future of the car that transpired throughout the IAA Mobility conference. It prompted the question: what is the value of autonomous driving which has become a patently endpoint computing discussion?

Professor Philipp Rode, Executive Director of LSE Cities, put it best in his keynote presentation, “Why Cities and Urban Access Matters.” As it pertains to urban transportation, the space consumption problem is the most significant matter to address. Neither the conventional car, electric car, or the autonomous car will resolve the congestion issues we face today in densely populated urban centers. In short, we need to think more broadly and deeply about the value propositions of the technologies that we believe will lead the evolution of the automobile and transportation to solve the problems we seek to solve.

In our analysis, a holistic approach to vehicular transportation is needed that considers the car one of many systems that will be able to participate in and contribute to shared and global objectives for safety, traffic efficiency, and sustainability that we aspire to meet, and the auto industry and transportation infrastructure operators will invest in to realize. This means that the automotive industry needs to factor in the digital maturation of infrastructure and 5G networks as it prioritizes the development and implementation of automated and autonomous capabilities of the car.

IAA Mobility 2021 happened at an auspicious time. It occurred when geopolitics, global trade, trends in semiconductor technology, and a global chip shortage are prompting the automotive industry and the broader transportation industry to deeply contemplate the role of chips and mobile computing on the future of the car and transportation. I’m looking forward to next year’s IAA Mobility event to keep a pulse on what appears to be an important inflection point for the car.

Leonard Lee is founder and managing director of neXt Curve, a research advisory firm focused on information and communication industry and technology research. He has worked as an executive consultant and industry analyst at Gartner, IBM, PwC and EY and has advised leading companies globally on competitive strategy, product and service innovation and business transformation. Follow Leonard on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/leonard-lee-nextcurve