TSMC Announces Early Access Nodes for Next-Gen Car Chips: N4AE and N3AE

As the latest series of announcements from this week’s North American Technology Symposium, TSMC concluded their fantastic roadmap updates with some fresh news about their automotive-focused processes. For their automotive customers, TSMC is gearing up to deliver a pair of new specialized process nodes to the market, N4AE and N3AE, aimed at providing early versions of TSMC’s forthcoming automotive-grade process nodes for use by customers wanting an early start with design and/or production.

The automotive industry is notoriously conservative when it comes to chip production, as automotive products are expected to meet much higher standards of safety and reliability. It’s no coincidence that the automotive industry has traditionally been a generation or so behind in terms of the process nodes used for silicon lithography, waiting for them to be truly proven processes. That said, the trend toward software-defined vehicles is fueling a rapid surge in demand for more powerful processors — and more chips altogether — which has spurred the industry to close the gap a bit and move faster to newer nodes.

To meet that anticipated demand, TSMC this week announced its Automotive Early (AE) manufacturing processes, which aim to help automakers start designing new chips for leading nodes earlier. TSMC’s N3AE (3nm class) and N4AE (4nm class) technologies are essentially stepping stones towards the development of a full automotive N3A process and are planned to provide consumer level reliability and will be delivered with car specific process design kits (PDKs) based on N3E and N4P respectively.

For customers requiring a traditional, highly reliable automotive-grade chip, N3AE can be used later this year by chip designers to begin development of automotive-grade products that will in turn be fabricated at the fully qualified N3A automotive manufacturing hub. within a few years. Alternatively, customers who want to bring chips to market earlier to control less critical systems in a car – such as digital cockpits and other non-critical systems – can plan to go into production with N4AE. Manufacturing on an Automotive Early node means forgoing some of the benefits of a fully qualified automotive process node – essentially building chips closer to the consumer – but it allows chip designers to get their chips into production on advanced nodes from a year earlier.

Traditionally, car manufacturers and automotive electronics developers required their chips to be qualified for quality and reliability, both in terms of functional safety (classified by ASIL system) and physical robustness (classified by AEC-Q100 standards). Improving the physical robustness of chips requires process technologies and design rules specifically developed/adapted to meet those increased requirements, and it typically takes foundries and their automotive chip partners two or three years to develop an automotive grade process technology. to develop. For example, TSMC has been making chips for smartphones and PCs using the N5 (5nm class) manufacturing process since 2020, but N5A for cars will finally be ready only this year.

At the same time, not all systems in a vehicle need to meet the most stringent integrity and reliability standards. For example, chips powering infotainment, digital cockpit and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) do not need to be AEC-Q100 Grade 1 (handle temperatures between -40°C and +150°C). These systems also often require a lot of processing power, taking significant advantage of advanced nodes.

TSMC said its N3AE (3nm Auto Early) will be launched in 2023 and will provide automotive process design kits (PDKs) based on N3E. It enables customers to initiate designs at the 3nm node specifically for automotive applications, ultimately leading to the N3A process, which is expected to be fully qualified for automotive use by 2025.

Meanwhile, customers in a hurry will also have N4AE as an option. N4AE is based on TSMC’s existing N4P process technology, and customers can begin risk production on N4AE a year early, in 2024. Presumably, given N4P’s legacy, N4AE would also be a good candidate to incorporate IP that is already designed for N4P (of which there are already stacks of them), further reducing time to market.

TSMC has not specified which of its customers are interested in using its N3AE and N4AE process technologies for their automotive SoCs, but there are several “usual suspects” who have been offering high-performance, feature-rich automotive SoCs for years.

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