What Is Automotive Grade? Here’s What It Means — and How We Do It

by Danny Shapiro

Would you bet your life on your new laptop? How about the smartphone you carry around in your pocket? Now, would you bet your life on your car?

Whether you’re racing off into the sunset with your brand new sports coupe or cruising in your 10-year-old sedan on your daily commute, you’re betting your car will get you to your destination, no matter the environment.

What Is Automotive Grade?

Two things separate the automobile you drive every day — and the computers we build for them — from everyday consumer electronics:

  • Rock-solid reliability — Everyday reliability is important. But your vehicle also requires a consistent level of reliability. It has to work on scorching summer days and frigid winter nights. When driving, lives are on the line.
  • Useful lifetime expectancy — The useful life of your phone is two to four years. Your car can last more than a decade.

Running Hot and Cold

Let’s focus on one of the factors that underpin our ability to meet both these targets: the ability to withstand a wide range of temperatures. When a consumer electronic device, such as a smartphone, is subjected to temperatures outside its limited range of tolerance, it may deliver error messages or just shut off.

That’s not an option for automotive-grade systems. If the engine will start, people are going to drive. So they need everything from their instrument cluster and navigation screen, to the advanced-driver assistance system and self-driving AI supercomputer to perform without hesitation.

Automotive grade electronics must work in all conditions.
Ready for the road: Automotive-grade electronics must work in all conditions.

That’s why our automotive solutions are rated to run from -40 to 105 degrees Celsius. It may seem like overkill, but the inside of a closed car can reach extreme temperatures during a sweltering summer day in many parts of the United States. And cars are sold in every corner of the world, Iceland to Israel, Greenland to Granada.

Tested and Ready

And temperature tolerance is just one of the reasons we spec and test our automotive systems much more vigorously than their consumer-grade counterparts. That testing doesn’t stop at processors. Our automotive-quality car computers are also put through laborious testing so no matter the condition, they function without fail.

Our process starts with a dedicated ISO 26262 ASIL-certified production line that eliminates the potential for human error during fabrication. Afterwards our chips undergo a 24-hour burn-in process to eliminate any defective units. Anything that doesn’t meet our highest requirements is tossed out. No exceptions.

Built to Last

The process is rigorous, and goes beyond just ensuring our car computers will run at all temperatures. Our tests employ demanding specifications for vibration, temperature and humidity.

Take a state-of-the-art process we call “unit level drift,” which we invented. It’s a screening we perform on all of our packaged parts, after they’re assembled, that allows us to process and reject devices that show excessive shifts on a number of key parameters. These tests allow us to predict which parts could have reliability problems — and discard them.

To NVIDIA, all this lengthy testing is well worth the effort to enable automotive products that exceed our customers’ expectations.