Volvo, Qualcomm, Google are joining hands to make car infotainment more smartphone-like than ever. If Wintel (Windows plus Intel) is the default software+hardware combo of the PC era, then the smartphone equivalent should be Android and Qualcomm (Endcom? Quadroid?). Volvo is bringing this combo to the upcoming Polestar 3 electric SUV, which is due sometime in 2022. We also got to know what the new interface will look like.
Volvo’s Polestar 2 was the first to ship Google’s Android Automotive OS in a car. Unlike Android Auto or Apple’s CarPlay, which runs on your smartphone, Android Automotive OS has a custom version of Android pre-installed on the car as the main car infotainment OS. Even if you have an iPhone, your car runs on Android. The Polestar 2 used an x86 chip (an Intel Atom A3900), but now Volvo is pairing a Qualcomm smartphone chip with its Google smartphone OS. The Polestar 3 will ship with Qualcomm’s “Snapdragon Cockpit Platform Gen 3,” and while it sounds unique, it’s actually a repackaged smartphone chip with a few extra features.
Integration of cars with computer technology is always difficult. The development of a car takes about five years, which may seem almost incompatible with the pace of development of smartphones and computers. This is still true of the 2022 Polestar 3. Qualcomm’s Gen 3 automotive platform was actually announced in 2019, but design wins for the platform are yet to be announced at CES 2022. Qualcomm says that the Gen 3 automotive platform is based on the Snapdragon 820 SoC. , an ARM flagship smartphone chip from 2016. You might remember this chip from phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel 1. The Intel Atom of the Polestar 2 was also from 2016.
The Gen 3 might not be the world’s newest chip, but it’s still on the same hardware and software platform as the Volvo smartphone. Volvo must now have a dead simple, consistent ARM upgrade path thanks to the smartphone evolution that happens every year. Here’s hoping it accelerates the market for fixture hardware. Qualcomm already announced the Gen 4 automotive platform at last year’s CES – it won’t be popping up in a car for a while.
But about the Gen 3’s additional features: It has upgraded RF capabilities like Wi-Fi 6, 5G, and new Bluetooth that you couldn’t find on the Snapdragon 820. Supporting a car, specifically an Android car means it needs support for virtualization. Android can run the infotainment system, but the gauge cluster display behind the steering wheel needs something else to drive. The security rules state that the Gauge Cluster cannot run Android. Android isn’t a real-time OS, which means it can lag if the processor is too slow, and doesn’t allow for important driving components like the speedometer. The solution is to have the Snapdragon 820 run two OSes via virtualization, with Android running the center infotainment screen and some other OS running the gauge cluster display. Android can still send UI overlays to the gauge cluster for things like media information and Google Maps information, but Speedo is off-limits.
Reviving the Snapdragon 820 for a modern product is an interesting proposition for Qualcomm. On smartphones, Qualcomm’s product support is often cited as a major impediment to the longevity of Android phones. The Snapdragon 820 would have supported something like the three major Android versions, so Android 6, 7, and 8. Qualcomm may have stopped support sometime around 2019, right around the time the Snapdragon 820-based third-generation car chip was announced. So while Qualcomm may have killed your phone, it doesn’t look like Android development for this chip has ever really stopped. Polestar 3 will likely debut with Android 11 or 12, and support will need to continue for years, even if the company doesn’t want to let that work on smartphones.
Today, Qualcomm has a public support timeline for the phone chips: three years of major OS updates and four years of security updates. Asked if there are any similar plans for car support, Qualcomm said it will support car chips for a longer period of time than phone chips, but the company would not offer specifications.
Putting a smartphone chip in a car gives Qualcomm a quicker way to market, as phones are currently its largest market. But the solution is not ideal. Smartphone chips are designed entirely around the size and power restrictions of a smartphone, neither of which are present in a car. A car is big. The whole floor is a battery. The cooling can be as big as you need it to be. Qualcomm is running into the same problem many companies in the industry are running into: The biggest ARM chips are still mostly smartphone chips. Apple is setting the trend by expanding ARM to desktop and laptop computers, but it can do so because it has a custom chip-design division. Most other companies do not. Qualcomm is working on getting there though, and it plans to start designing more powerful ARM chips for laptops (and cars?) in the future.