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MCUs: The Microelectronic Heartbeat of the Car, Running on Arm

The demand for automotive microcontrollers (MCUs) is accelerating across today's modern vehicles, with this technology being built on Arm.
By Dipti Vachani, SVP and GM of the Automotive Line of Business, Arm

If you’ve seen me speak at an industry event lately, you’ll know I’m passionate about how trends like increasing automation, electrification and the rise of software-defined vehicles (SDVs) are leading the automotive industry to completely reinvent itself.  This evolution is driving a huge influx of electronics and semiconductors into the vehicle and, in many cases, a complete rethink of the role of technology in the vehicle and the electrical architectures needed to support it. Central to this transition are the Electronic Control Units (ECUs) and microcontrollers (MCUs) that are the heartbeat of the modern vehicle and fundamental to the majority of operations that make it run safely.

Individual ECUs (of which there are many in a vehicle) control one or more of the electrical systems or subsystems within the vehicle, such as powertrain, engine, brakes, body or suspension control. Meanwhile, MCUs support single function operations within these ECUs, such as sensors or motor actuation, making them vital to the day-to-day running of the vehicle. Some modern vehicles use more than 100 MCUs. Put simply, without MCUs these vehicle functions that we need for an enjoyable and safe driving experience could not exist.

Doubling down on our MCU investment

This is exactly why Arm has a long history of significant investment into our Cortex-M and Cortex-R lines of products that power automotive MCUs. We continue to develop a broad MCU product portfolio that leverages our heritage in efficient, low-power computing across all performance points, from the tiniest sensors to higher performance ECUs, giving our automotive partners and supporting ecosystem the ability to reuse software across Arm-based MCUs. On top of this, we are adding more safety features throughout our Cortex-M line-up and supporting software that benefits the vehicle and wider ecosystem.

Both Cortex-M and Cortex-R product roadmaps are essential to the Arm business and are being driven by the automotive industry embracing the need for many more capable MCUs across vehicles. In fact, according to Strategy Analytics, between now and 2026, the number of MCUs is set to rise by 8 percent outpacing the growth in vehicle production.

A committed ecosystem

Our automotive silicon partners are taking notice. Recent product development announcements from industry-leaders in automotive MCUs, NXP and Renesas, not only highlight the vital role of MCUs within vehicles, but also the importance of Arm technology, such as our Cortex-M family, in delivering the compute capabilities needed for a new era of advanced automotive MCUs.

NXP

Working closely with NXP, we have been able to leverage the full potential of Arm automotive processors across its entire S32 vehicle compute platform, with its new S32M2 motor control solution being no exception. This is helping to deliver advanced power efficiency and safety capabilities for a broad range of single vehicle functions, while also benefiting from Arm’s extensive software ecosystem.

Renesas

Meanwhile, Renesas unveiled a roadmap for the fifth generation of its R-Car family of chips, including two new Arm-based MCU product lines providing solutions that meet high computing performance and real-time processing requirements of the future automotive market. These new product additions signal Renesas’ commitment to supporting market demands and making Arm-based products available to its customers.  

Automotive MCU momentum

These recent announcements are part of wider momentum for the adoption of Arm technologies across automotive MCUs. In my talks with a wide range of automotive partners, we know that Arm is the MCU technology of choice due to the common architecture, power efficient compute, functional safety, advanced security, software compatibility, scalability, and broad ecosystem of support.

A common architecture: Through 30 years of working with the automotive industry, Arm has a diverse and scalable portfolio of compute cores for a variety of automotive applications. This provides a common architecture that means designers and developers benefit from scalable hardware and the ability to re-use software, saving engineering time and costs and allowing them to focus on what really matters – product differentiation.

Seamless software: The sheer scale of the Arm architecture, with more than 250 billion Arm-based chips shipped to date, is motivating software providers to add Arm support for cost-effective and seamless software deployment of applications. This is timely as we look ahead to the rise of SDVs and over-the-air (OTA) software updates adding more features to the vehicle.

Safety that scales: The Cortex-M and Cortex-R lines of products bring safety capabilities across all performance points for MCUs, enabling our partners to develop different safety features and solutions that scale. Support from our leading ecosystem then provides a range of software and tools for future safety developments.

Advanced security: The future growth of SDVs increases the attack surface in vehicles, which requires advanced security protection not just for multi-functional high-performance compute platforms, but also single-function low-power MCUs. These protections are needed throughout the entire lifetime of the vehicle, with the ability to provide ongoing software updates increasingly important.

The technology for automotive MCUs

As proven by automotive industry leaders like NXP, Renesas, STMicroelectronics, Elmos, and indie Semiconductor, along with continued investment in the extensive software ecosystem, Arm is delivering the stable, reliable, safe and secure MCU technology for partners to scale their products and focus their time on differentiation rather than rewriting their software. As the automotive industry continues to go through unprecedented transformation that requires more compute capabilities, safety features and software support, Arm will be the technology choice for future MCUs.

Arm-based automotive MCUs

Arm provides a wide range of technology solutions for automotive MCUs.

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