In September, Freescale announced its acquisition of computer vision processor IP supplier CogniVue. BDTI discussed the news with Matt Johnson, Vice President and General Manager of Freescale's Automotive MCU division, which instigated the transaction. The two companies had closely collaborated for the past several years, so the purchase wasn't a complete surprise. Still, the interview produced a number of interesting insights. Also in attendance was Simon Morris, former CEO of CogniVue (now a member of Freescale's management team).
Johnson began by reiterating that the two companies had been working together for several years, with Freescale having announced ADAS (advanced driver assistance system) SoCs based on CogniVue’s first-and second-generation APEX Image Cognition Processor (ICP). According to Johnson, Freescale has gained significant traction with its ADAS customers, and this market will represent the company’s largest R&D focus going forward.
It therefore made obvious sense, according to Johnson, to bring critical IP from CogniVue, which Freescale had already thoroughly vetted and had just unveiled its third-generation "Opus" offering, in-house. Johnson also noted that as a startup, CogniVue had been addressing a range of markets outside of Freescale's priorities. By virtue of the narrower market focus due to the acquisition, Freescale hopes that the former CogniVue team can focus its efforts and accelerate its progress.
BDTI asked about the future of CogniVue’s other existing customer relationships, in both ADAS and other markets. Morris pointed out that even before the acquisition, Freescale had exclusive access to CogniVue-developed IP for automotive applications. Going forward, Morris said, the CogniVue applications team retained by Freescale will support CogniVue’s existing customers and products commensurate with contractual commitments.
Will Freescale offer the CogniVue cores for licensing to other chip companies? Johnson made it clear that "We won’t enable competition in our own backyard" (i.e. other ADAS chip suppliers). And future core license opportunities were not, Johnson and Morris agreed, a primary motivation for the CogniVue acquisition. Freescale does actively license silicon IP to other chip companies, but less than 10% of Freescale's revenue is currently derived from this activity. Nevertheless, Johnson indicated that Freescale is open to licensing APEX cores in other markets "if it's a good investment of our time."
BDTI also asked whether the CogniVue cores will be used by groups within Freescale other than the ADAS division. Johnson noted that the company's culture had long encouraged such internal reuse: technology initially developed by one division and for one market is often later adopted by other divisions and markets. Industrial applications, for example, is an area where Freescale has historically had a strong presence, and where Freescale sees potential for CogniVue's technology. Johnson and Morris stated that at the moment there are no plans for any Freescale groups other than the automotive group to develop products based on CogniVue’s technology, but noted that it is "early days." They also suggested that after the completion of the Freescale-NXP merger, the number of applications for vision processor cores within the combined entity may expand.
Asked about how Freescale’s CogniVue-based products compare with competing offerings from suppliers like Mobileye and Texas Instruments, Johnson and Morris declined to comment on specific competitors, but offered some general observations. First, according to Johnson, system developers often initially use general-purpose solutions (e.g. general-purpose DSPs) to create early solutions for new markets, but eventually replace them with more purpose-built solutions of the type that Freescale has been developing using CogniVue’s cores. Second, Johnson emphasized that Freescale is focused on delivering open, programmable solutions, with algorithms and other IP supplied both by the company and its ecosystem of partners, as well as being developed by customers themselves.
In its Cognivue acquisition press release, Freescale noted that "The company has shipped more than 20 million units into ADAS applications to date, and has designs in 9 of the world’s top 10 automotive OEMs. Additionally, Freescale has secured a design win pipeline enabling growth well above industry estimates for the worldwide ADAS market for the next several years." Note that the company's use of ADAS terminology encompasses radar-, vision- and sensor fusion-based implementations, according to Johnson. Also, while the majority of the 20 million units were processors, he specified that some number of sensors and other ICs were also included in that number.
The financial terms of the CogniVue acquisition weren't disclosed, so it's difficult to estimate when Freescale will see a positive return-on-investment from bringing its former partner's technology inside the company. But conceptually, the acquisition makes solid sense, as the ADAS market's rapid expansion and supplier consolidation trends continue, since it gives Freescale much greater control of its technology and product destiny. Fortunately for other SoC suppliers already in or considering entering the ADAS market, plenty of other vision processor IP providers exist (with more appearing) to fill the gap created by CogniVue's exit.