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Qualcomm eyes self-driving cars with Snapdragon Ride Platform at CES 2020

The company has developed its first system for autonomous vehicles, as well as new offerings for automakers to do things like deliver services.

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Automotive is a big focus for Qualcomm.

Shara Tibken/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Qualcomm is making a bigger play for automotive, with the aim to do to everything from providing a 5G connection to powering self-driving cars. And it has signed an expanded partnership with General Motors for infotainment and advanced driver-assistance systems. 

The San Diego wireless chip giant at CES in Las Vegas unveiled its first Snapdragon Ride Platform to make it easier and more power efficient for automakers to turn their vehicles into self-driving cars. It packs in everything from the hardware to the software needed to run autonomous vehicles, including artificial intelligence technology, power-efficient hardware and a compact design. 

The Snapdragon Ride Platform will help with automatic emergency braking, traffic sign recognition, lane keeping assist functions, automated highway driving, self-parking, urban driving in stop-and-go traffic and fully autonomous driving for autonomous urban driving, robo-taxis and robo-logistics.

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Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon shows the Snapdragon Ride box to the CES 2020 crowd at the company's press conference on Monday.

James Martin/CNET

"We've been working on it for seven years," Patrick Little, the head of Qualcomm's auto business, said in an interview ahead of CES. The first cars using the technology should hit the market in mid- to late-2023, he said.

Qualcomm's technology connects devices -- including upcoming Apple iPhones -- to cellular networks, and acts as the brains of phones like Samsung's Note 10. But the mobile market is slowing down, and Qualcomm has been looking to expand in faster-growing areas. Automotive has been one of them. 

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As cars do more things, there's need for more advanced processors to power the vehicles both under the hood and for in-vehicle controls and entertainment. Automotive is one of the faster growing segments of the semiconductor market, according to IDC.

"The automotive market remains one of the strong growth drivers over the forecast horizon as semiconductor content and design activity for autonomous enabling technologies will continue to drive 3-4 times more growth than the overall market," IDC analyst Nina Turner said in a press release last year. 

Auto opportunities

Qualcomm's efforts in automotive have focused on three main areas: connectivity, computing and electrification. It builds processors to connect a car to other vehicles and to the world around it; improves the experience inside the car for the driver and passengers; and enables new technologies like electric cars and autonomous vehicles. 

Over time, it has also started expanding into another area: helping automakers deliver services with its Car-to-Cloud Service, Little said. It will provide the backend technology needed to do things like send over-the-air software updates and will first be in cars in the 2021 to 2022 timeframe, he said. 

"The first steps there will be simple," Little said. "It will first start showing up as automakers saying, do simple over-the-air updates to send patches." After that, Qualcomm aims to help automakers implement other services like health monitoring or streaming media content. 

The company's Car-To-Cloud Soft SKU lets chipsets be securely upgraded after they've already shipped in cars. That lets automakers turn on new capabilities as performance requirements increase or new features launch. And car companies can develop their vehicles on common hardware, letting them deploy car smarts quickly. 

Qualcomm also unveiled a new Wi-Fi 5 and Bluetooth combination chip for cars, the QCA6595AU. It's slower than the company's other auto connectivity chips -- capable of 1 Gbps downloads versus 1.8 Gbps in its Wi-Fi 6 auto chip -- but gives car makers another option to connect their vehicles.