NXP to focus on all CMOS radar

March 10, 2015 // By Junko Yoshida
In announcing the planned acquisition of Freescale Semiconductor, NXP Semiconductor CEO Rick Clemmer last week explained how he expects the new entity — NXP and Freescale combined — to lead the growing automotive electronics market.

NXP's booth at MWC
NXP's booth at MWC

In briefings, Clemmer casually mentioned, without elaborating, that making today’s “big and clunky radars” small is one of the keys to next-generation advanced drivers’ assistance systems. It turns out that the small radars Clemmer referenced aren’t from Freescale’s, a company known for its fine 77GHz packaged radar front-end chipset using SiGe technology.

Clemmer was talking about an RF CMOS-based 80GHz radar front-end transmitter chip — currently a working prototype — developed at NXP.

Called Dolphin, NXP’s 80GHz chip uses digital CMOS process technology, an accomplishment long believed impossible.

Lars Reger, vice president strategy, new business, and R&D for automotive at NXP, told EE Times that the working prototype is currently in the hands of “our lead customers [Tier Ones and OEMs] under non-disclosure agreement.”

Asked about the tiny radars Clemmer cited, Reger said, “This isn’t a story about small radars. It’s about up-integration. We’ve found a path to integrate front-end radar transmitter with a baseband — all in CMOS.”

Keeping the front-end chip in a process technology like BiCMOS would make it hard to advance integration, said Reger. Just as NXP has won the global car audio market by integrating FM, AM, satellite radio chips with silicon tuners — all in CMOS, “Our goal is to do the same up-integration with radar chips,” he added.

During his interview with EE Times, Clemmer said NXP’s AM/FM car radio chips are used on “27 out of 28 car audio platforms of choice” used by Tier Ones and car OEMs.

From GaAs to SiGe, now to CMOS?
The first commercial radar systems of the late 1990’s were based on GaAs chips. But then Infineon started developing systems based on bipolar process SiGe chips. So did Freescale. Those SiGe radar chips are already designed into radar collision warning systems.

Reportedly, automotive radar developers have already warmed up to SiGe radar chips and begun switching from GaAs. But here’s a big question: Will the new millimeter-wave sensors made in plain CMOS prompt them to switch again — this time from SiGe to CMOS?

That’s the big market shift NXP is betting on. And certainly NXP isn’t alone thinking along these lines.

About a year ago, IMEC announced a 79GHz radar transmitter implemented in 28nm CMOS and designed for automotive radar systems. At that time, IMEC, which developed it in collaboration with Vrije Universiteit Brussel, called it “the world first,” explaining, “With an output power above 10dBm, the transmitter front-end paves the way towards full radar-on-chip solutions for automotive and smart environment applications.”

Asked if NXP’s Dolphin was spun out of IMEC’s development, Reger said no. He said it’s an internal project three years in the making.

How NXP gave birth to Dolphin
The idea of the development of an 80GHz radar transmitter chip came from a team of NXP engineers who developed a 60GHz chip for wireless HDMI, said Reger. That chip was able to cover 15 meters.