​Intel has a new chip to bring brains to your car

The A3900 is designed to give cars digital dashboards and help them spot pedestrians. It and its E3900 cousin are about twice as fast as predecessors.

Intel's Ken Caviasca

Ken Caviasca, VP and GM of IoT Platform engineering and development group.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Intel probably already supplies the brains for your PC. Now it wants to do the same for your next car with new members of its Atom processor family.

That auto could have a giant screen instead of analog gauges, digital displays instead of rearview mirrors and cameras to detect pedestrians and drowsy drivers. If Intel gets its way, the company's new A3900 chip will power it all.

The company surged into global dominance by making the processors that power PCs, but since we're not buying those so much anymore, Intel has been scrambling to be a part of new markets. You don't see an "Intel inside" sticker when you use Google search, but Intel chips are a foundational part of the technology that delivers the search results.

Intel's Atom chips are designed for small products, internet-of-things devices and industrial computing systems.

Intel

You also don't see Intel inside stickers on your phone, but that's because Intel flopped in that market despite years of trying. But it's got a better chance in another big market -- the so-called internet of things, including cars. We're used to computer power in our phones and laptops, but the internet of things spreads it to everything from factory robots and door locks to streetlights and refrigerated boxcars.

Even though you may not care whose chip makes your toaster smart, you may be glad to hear Intel is involved. The company has world-class chip manufacturing technology, which for you and me translates directly into lower prices.

The A3900 and its less heat-tolerant sibling, the E3900, will arrive in products in the second quarter of 2017, said Ken Caviasca, general manager of engineering and development for Intel's internet-of-things group. The new chips are up to 1.7 times faster at computing and 2.9 times faster at graphics tasks, he said.

Intel's A3900 processor

Intel's A3900 processor, designed for cars, runs fine even at 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Intel

"The E3900 can go to the higher performance needs the E3800 couldn't meet," Caviasca said. They come in dual-core and quad-core models.

For car technology, Intel's competitors include NXP Semiconductor, which you probably never heard of despite years of experience in the market, and Nvidia, which you're more likely to know since they're a top maker of the PC graphics chips that make video games look realistic. Those companies rely on widely used designs licensed from ARM Holdings -- designs also used in almost every mobile phone and tablet.

Intel expects customers like Delphi and Neusoft will use the A3900 in today's increasingly electronic vehicles. It's also aiming the less heat-tolerant E3900 at video devices like surveillance cameras and at industrial devices like factory robots. There, the chip can assure reliably fast communications among different devices like machines working in concert.

That quick communication link -- a thousandth of a second -- is also useful in cars, where for example designers want to ensure a computer spotting a pedestrian can be trusted.

"You want to guarantee the time between acquisition and action," Caviasca said.

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