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Automotive PCIe®: To Switch or Not to Switch?

The myths and false economy of direct chip-to-chip PCIe® connect in ADAS and vehicle autonomy applications.

PCIe®'s Rising Role in Autonomous Driving and ADAS Technology

Before pondering the question of whether or not to switch, let’s first set the scene by considering why Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe®) is becoming so popular as an interconnect technology in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) applications—and why it will be so crucial in the realization of completely autonomous driving (AD) as the automotive industry seeks standard interfaces that deliver performance while ensuring compatibility and ease-of-use.

With its roots in the computing industry, PCIe is a point-to-point bidirectional bus for connecting high-speed components. Subject to the system architecture (PCIe’s implementation), data transfer can take place over 1, 2, 4, 8 or 16 lanes, and if more than one lane is used the bus becomes a serial/parallel hybrid.

The PCIe specification is owned and managed by the PCI Special Interest Group (PCI-SIG), an association of 900+ industry companies committed to advancing its non-proprietary peripheral technology. As demand for higher I/O performance grows, the group’s scope and ecosystem reach are both expanding, and to paraphrase words from PCI-SIG’s membership page:

Current PCIe and other related technology roadmaps account for new form factors and lower power applications. Innovation on these fronts will remain true to PCI-SIG’s legacy of delivering solutions that are backward compatible, cost-efficient, high performance, processor agnostic, and scalable.

With vehicles becoming high-performance computing platforms (HPCs—and data centers, even) on wheels, these words are exactly what vehicle OEMs developing ADAS and AD solutions want to hear. Also, every generation of PCIe results in performance improvements - from gen 1.0’s data (giga) transfer rate of 2.5GT/s and total bandwidth of 4G/s (16 lanes) to today’s gen 6.0’s 64GT/s and 128G/s (16 lanes). Note: PCIe 7.0, slated to arrive in 2025, will have a data rate of 128GT/s and a bandwidth of 512GB/s through 16 lanes.

PCIe’s performance power cannot be disputed, and it will certainly be required to support the kind of real-time processing of large volumes of data needed for AI- and ML-enabled ADAS and AD applications.

But, as ever, there is debate around implementing PCIe-based architectures, not least when it comes to whether the connections between PCIe-enabled components should be direct or switched.

Making the Connection

To provide higher levels of automation, vehicles must incorporate increasingly sophisticated combinations of electronic components including central processing units (CPUs), electronic control units (ECUs), graphics processing units (GPUs), system-on-chips (SoCs), “smart sensors” and high-capacity and high-speed storage devices (such as NVMe memory).

Of these components, the ECUs (there are many) combine across separate zones based on a common functionality. These zonal ECUs communicate with HPC platforms using Ethernet. But within those platforms, there is a need for high-bandwidth processing to achieve real-time decision making.

Accordingly, PCIe technology is being used by automotive designers in a manner very similar to the way in which a data center is designed. Connecting sensors with high-speed serial outputs to processing units is best addressed with an open standard called Automotive SerDes Alliance (ASA).

In essence, there are three pillars of automotive networking (see figure 1).

Figure 1 - Three Pillars of future of Automotive Networking

However, some SoC vendors are saying that for PCIe you can simply connect directly between chips without a switch. Well, yes, you can… but it doesn’t scale to higher ADAS levels and it’s a false economy do so.

An HPC system without a switch exponentially increases software complexity, as each end requires its own software stack. Also, there’s the “bigger picture” benefits of switched over unswitched PCIe to consider:

IO Bandwidth Optimization: Packet switching reduces the SoC interconnection pin count requirement which lowers SoC power and cost.

  • Peripheral Sharing: Single peripherals, such as SSD storage or ethernet controllers, may be shared across several SoCs

  • Scalability: You can easily scale for more performance without changing the system architecture by increasing switch size, SoC count and peripheral count.

  • Serviceability: PCIe has built-in error detection and diagnostic test features which have been thoroughly proven in the high performance compute environment over many years to significantly ease serviceability.

  • And as a result of the above points, a much better total cost of ownership (TCO) is possible.

When PCIe combines forces with Ethernet and ASA, it allows for the creation of an optimized, heterogeneous system architecture (as figure 2 illustrates with respect to an ADAS example).

Figure 2 - Heterogenous architecture for ADAS

Although the three communications technologies evolved at different times to support different needs, and have their respective pros and cons, the heterogeneous architecture makes the best of each. For further information on this this, you may wish to read our blog post about How Ethernet, PCIe and ASA Combine in Tomorrow’s Software-Defined Vehicles.

As mentioned, PCIe provides point-to-point connection, meaning devices are not competing for bandwidth, which is fine if only a few devices need to connect. However, an autonomous vehicle is best realized as a set of distributed workloads, which means bandwidth needs to be shared between multiple sub-system components.

In this respect, PCIe switches provide an excellent solution as they are “transparent,” meaning that software and other devices do not need to be aware of the presence of switches in the hierarchy, and no drivers are required.

The Answer: Switch

PCIe is ideal for ADAS, AD and other HPC applications within a vehicle, but its “point-to-point” connectivity has many thinking that that’s how it should be implemented—as chip-to-chip, for example. However, integrating switching using technologies such as the Microchip Switchtecfamily (the world’s first automotive-qualified PCIe switches) minimizes software complexity and realizes a host of other benefits for high-performance automotive systems with multiple sub-system components that demand low latencies and high data rates.

Daniel Leih, Jan 11, 2024

Tags/Keywords: Automotive and Transportation

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