Intel’s Atom Paves the Way for Smarter Electric Cars

In recent weeks, gabby Nissan execs and updates from the Chevy team have helped to build anticipation for late 2010, when tech-laden electric vehicles are expected to hit dealer lots. While cars have been experiencing the steady creep of infotech into in-car displays, advanced entertainment and navigation systems and more, electric vehicles will accelerate that process.
Over the next several years, auto sales will become a closely watched metric for chipmakers, right alongside PC and server sales. The director of marketing for Intel’s Eco-Technology division, John Skinner,  told Reuters earlier this week that the chip giant is eyeing the electric car market, calling the transportation industry “very ripe” for computer chips.
He’s right. What has quickly becoming apparent to Nissan, Chevy and other companies developing EVs and plug-ins is that their next-gen autos will rely heavily on IT systems. Synching with smart meters and charging stations, managing a battery’s charge and maintaining battery health, among other vital functions, is going to require some heavy lifting, computationally speaking.
As automotive IT ventures into energy management and range prediction, Intel will undoubtedly exploit the automotive inroads it already paved. Of the two technologies, range prediction will really give Intel a chance to test its mettle as an automotive parts supplier, of sorts. Analyzing driver inputs, monitoring the electrical drain of accessories and incorporating GPS data, then correlating all that info to generate spot-on range estimates takes some serious real-time number crunching and fast processing speeds. Judging by recent statements, Intel appears to be positioning itself as the go-to chipmaker for speedy, low-power embedded EV chipsets.
Fortunately for Intel, it’s no stranger to in-car technology. Currently, the company is working with Harman International on “infotainment” systems for upcoming BMW and Daimler vehicles, based on the Atom processor (Intel’s popular, low-power netbook chip that was partly responsible for its stellar third-quarter financial results). And at the Frankfurt Auto Show this past September, Better Place gave a taste of its AutOS software, which tracks an EV’s effective range and locates charging and swapping stations, on an Atom-powered dash unit.
More in-car systems are bound to show up.  Since Intel first announced that it was tailoring Atom processors for automotive applications, the Genivi Alliance sprouted up.  The group, founded by BMW, Delphi, GM, and Visteon, among others, is working on an open-source infotainment reference design with the Atom processor at its core.  Also earlier this year, updates to Microsoft’s infotainment software, which powers Ford Sync and Blue and Me from Fiat, included Atom support.
A newer, soon-to-be released variant of the chip, called Pineview, not only has the makings of a more powerful, energy efficient netbook processor, it also offers clues on how Intel plans to attract EV manufacturers in the coming years. The new chip is vastly more energy efficient than its aging predecessors, a feat made possible by incorporating the memory controller and graphics. This results in a simplified chipset architecture, a reduction in the number of chips that require power, and improved all-around performance, attributes that will help EVs handle big computational workloads under tight power constraints.

Question of the week

What other ways can EVs benefit from greener, faster processors?