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(Image courtesy of Qualcomm).

Qualcomm Expands Chip Lineup Targeting Car Dashboards

NXP Semiconductors, the world's largest maker of automotive chips, has had to change course after Qualcomm's $44 billion merger bid fell through last year. Qualcomm, the largest supplier of mobile phone chips, is also having to go it alone in the automotive business. The San Diego, California-based company is focusing on the parts of the vehicle that are functioning more and more like smartphones.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company introduced its latest line of chips targeting the car's central console. The chips can be installed in infotainment systems that allow drivers to download driving direction with voice commands or passengers to reply to messages that pop up on the dashboard display. Qualcomm also wants to give customers the ability to replace traditional gauges with digital instrument clusters.

The company said that its latest Snapdragon Automotive Cockpit platform would be offered at three different prices based on the level of performance required, not unlike how it sells smartphone chips for both lower end and flagship devices. Qualcomm's idea is to serve customers building both budget and premium cars. The levels range from Performance to Premiere to Paramount for budget, mid-range and high-end cars, respectively.

Ever since it rebuffed Broadcom's $117 billion takeover bid and canceled the NXP deal, Qualcomm has been under pressure to diversify into new areas. Global shipments of smartphones are projected to drop 5 percent last year compared to 2017, according to Strategy Analytics. Qualcomm is also locked in fierce legal battles with Apple over the licensing fees it charges to access patents central to how phones connect to cellular networks. 

The company is targeting sales of car components to reduce its dependence on the smartphone market, where sales are leveling off. Customers have ordered from Qualcomm more than $5 billion worth of chips to enable cars to talk with each other directly, communicate with the cloud, and upgrade the capabilities of the center console. This time last year, orders of automotive chips were around $3 billion, according to Qualcomm.

The Automotive Cockpit platform is based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820a. The chip is capable of enhancing the efficiency of artificial intelligence applications that could be vital to driving assistance functions and other future in-car technologies, according to Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm's senior V.P. of product management. The platform can also connect the car to cellular networks while supporting the latest generations of WiFi and Bluetooth.

"Unknown to many, Qualcomm is a player in the automotive electronics market, with high market share in telematics, wireless connectivity and, in the future, infotainment," Patrick Moorhead, founder of market researcher Moor Insights and Strategy, said. The San Diego, California-based company's shift into automobiles "leverages almost every investment already sunk into smartphones, so it is very low risk and very affordable," he said. 

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