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HAMBURG, Germany—Lars Reger is perfectly at home atop a windsurf board—choppy waves be damned. And he sees clearly how it relates to his work as the chief technology officer of NXP Semiconductors.
“You need to be willing to inject a lot of energy, but the reward is enormous,” he told EE Times in a recent interview in his modest office here in Hamburg. “You need to have a rough idea in mind of what you want to do when the next wave is coming, right? But if you try to over-plan it, then you’re only stuck between your ears, and your body does not react. And so, you have to trust your emotions. Trust your intuition to a certain level. And also trust in the help of others, if needed.”
Being curious about what is behind the next wave—whether literal or metaphorical—is a core competency in Reger’s view. And being good at it has earned him speaking engagements with the likes of the U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC): In December, he spoke on a DoC roundtable addressing the future of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council.
That core competency shone brightly when the NXP exec invited Prophesee CEO Luca Verre to an extended confab in 2019 about the event-based vision sensors Prophesee makes.
“He was curious. He was open-minded,” Verre said. “We come from the field of neuromorphic vision. We emulate the way biology works. We are developing unique technology: event-based sensors that only send data when something changes in a scene. Sometimes, people play safely in their comfort zones and push back when they see new things. Lars was exactly the opposite.”
Prophesee’s smart sensors can pre-process data at the acquisition level, transferring some value to the sensor from the application processors NXP makes, Verre said. “If you do some pre-processing inside the sensor, it is possible to address certain applications with less computing power from the application processor. In this way, this condition is a bit disruptive for NXP. But, overall, it is complementary.”
Prophesee has not disclosed a partnership with NXP, Verre said.
Anticipating future developments is also quite important when managing the tech division of a Dutch chip designer and manufacturer that employs more than 30,000 people in more than 30 countries: People’s jobs are at stake. Life-changing technology is on the line.
“Of course, the job is not only a game,” he said.” We have to perform here. But like in sports, you want to perform. You want to ideally be part even of a team. Then it’s more fun.”
Reger on tech-enabled anticipation, automation, “digital beacons,” sensors, actuators, and software and hardware security: Listen to a podcast interview that Embedded.com Editor in Chief Nitin Dahad conducted at CES 2023.
Reger, 52, sees many useful connections between his home and work lives.
“One of the best sparring partners for me is my mom, who recently turned 87,” he said. “She is constantly in discussion with me, trying to understand what am I doing. And if I cannot explain it to my mom, then typically something is wrong: If my mom would be afraid of the technology and I cannot explain it in a reasonable way, then I have to rethink it because a lot of people are looking to NXP from the outside, of course.”
Then there’s Reger’s father, a total skeptic about automotive tech advances—“until I forced him to drive my BMW once with the lane-keep system and the adaptive cruise control engaged,” he said. “He stepped out of that car and immediately wanted to sell his old car.”
Reger believes autonomous driving will happen and “most of us will not even recognize it,” he said. “It is wrong to assume there will be a big bang, no steering wheels in cars anymore and my kids driving to the kindergarten without me. That scenario might happen pretty far out. But it’s equally wrong to assume that I am today driving my car—especially on this rainy morning” because many modern cars have ABS, ESP systems, lane-keep assistance and adaptive cruise control.
“My dad, at age 83, lives 500 kilometers away from Hamburg,” Reger said. “He’d like to drive the 10 kilometers from his home in the mountains to the motorway and then press a button, and say, ‘Get me to Hamburg.’ While the highway pilot system goes along 480 kilometers, he might doze off or watch the landscape. And then the car would tell him when there is another 10 kilometers to go—and he does that driving.”
While highway-piloted systems are feasible in a few cars today, and people are willing to pay for these systems, he said he expects the only people willing to pay for fully autonomous driving in the near future will be those running taxi and truck logistics companies.
‘An overflow of inspiration fantasy’
A CTO’s job involves at least a modicum of thrill-seeking.
As a young man, Reger worked as a trainer for the German Lifeguard and Rescue Organization (which was when he made a friend who would become his wife). He also tried skydiving. And now he has enough self-awareness to know that his seeking out drama stems, in part, from growing up in Bad Berleburg Germany (population: “60 million trees and 20,000 inhabitants”). “My parents were both primary school teachers, and so it was a pretty sheltered setup,” he said.
That left plenty of time for fantasy.
When asked to describe his own career trajectory, Reger said, “Maybe that’s the main thing: an overflow of inspiration fantasy. I started dreaming of how I could build my own little submarines. I wanted to be a deep-sea diver. I wanted to be an astronaut. So totally crazy childhood dreams as a 10, 12-year-old kid. I was always pretty close to natural sciences, but also I grew up in the most rural area of western Germany.
Reger’s joining the military meant meeting a physicist who inspired him to explore that field.
Then, while roaming around Bonn one afternoon during his military days, he said he “stumbled” onto the Physical Institute of Bonn University.
“I started my physics studies there,” he added. “So, the main road was clear. Then I wanted to build medical equipment. So, I began studying medicine in parallel to physics.”
When Reger finished his physics studies, he was two and a half years into medicine. He had been working on semiconductor detectors for medical devices. He wrote a couple of applications to Bosch and Siemens—and Siemens hired him. “It became Siemens Semiconductors Infineon.
At Infineon, he was still young enough to be accepted to these young professional circles. That opened the door to an executive MBA program, at London Business School.
After Reger secured his MBA, Roland Busch, who today is the CEO of Siemens, bought him out of his obligation to stay with Infineon for three years—to get him on Siemens’ VDO team for automotive system development.
That is when Reger moved into navigation-system development, car architecture and car connectivity.
“I got close to some of the professors there,” he said. “Maybe it was due to my fantasy robot connected car discussions.”
‘Friendly but direct’
Alex Kocher, an automotive industry tech consultant who previously served as the CEO of Elektrobit, hired Reger in 2001—“when at Siemens VDO we had a very tough, high-end infotainment project—building a car communication computer for BMW, using one 400mH Renesas processor. It was the first 5 Series with the iDrive device, and the one processor did everything: speech recognition, navigation and all the HMI. We had the challenge to bring it onto the road, and we did it.”
In the six years they worked together, Reger always proved to be “very open-minded and energetic,” Kocher said. “You never have the feeling when you work with him that a challenge is tough. He never loses his humor. And he is also very focused—in order to hit the target and even exceed it.”
Even when Reger is challenged, “he takes it and replies in a friendly but direct way,” Kocher added. “I think this is his main success factor.”
Soon after Reger joined Siemens VDO, the head of strategy was asking Reger to take over a keynote talk at a conference. It was part of his training to be able to “from the technical and the business side, do business-development—talk architecture, as well as business meaning,” Reger said.
That helped pave the way to NXP, which recruited Reger as an automotive strategist in 2013—and named him chief technology officer about five years later.
Wide variety of innovations
Examples of the NXP team’s innovation since mid-2020 include:
- Formed a partnership with Moter Technologies, a data science subsidiary of one of Asia’s largest insurance groups, to work toward bridging the gap between the automotive and insurance ecosystems—and effectively monetize the abundant data in connected vehicles.
- Introduced a Wi-Fi 6E tri-band chipset designed for access points and service provider gateways to enable end network devices to take full advantage of the 6 GHz spectrum.
- Launched BlueBox 3.0, an automotive development platform that doubled the embedded computing power of BlueBox 2.0 and boosted I/O and PCIe connectivity eight-fold.
- Partnered with Otonomo to leverage vehicle edge computing—to reduce data processing costs by enabling in-vehicle data processing.
- Saddled up with Amazon Web Services (AWS), with the goal of enabling car OEMs to collect and harness the voluminous streams of data generated by their own vehicles.
- Became the lead licensee of Arm’s new version of its microNPU (neural processing unit) IP that is suitable for use alongside Cortex-A CPU cores in application processors—to use the IP in a family of application processors that can handle AI applications such as pose estimation, multi-face recognition and object detection in videos, as well as speech recognition beyond basic keyword spotting.
- Joined forces with Volkswagen so that the carmaker could use NXP’s battery management systems in its EV car platform. The platform is aimed at consolidating electronic controls and reducing the number of microprocessors. It also allows a flexible battery layout that serves various battery needs from smaller city cars to long-haul vehicles.
- Opened an AI ethics initiative intended to encourage the ethical development of AI systems in edge devices.
- Opened its own 150mm (6-inch) GaN fab in Arizona to focus primarily on the communications infrastructure market for 5G radio systems and with technology migration to future 6G in mind.
- Created a customized implementation of Glow for microcontrollers (MCU), including some of its i.MX RT family. Glow is a neural network compiler that optimizes neural networks for specific target hardware.
- In concert with Teraki, Airbiquity, Cloudera and Wind River, developed a “pre-integrated hardware and software solution” to enable carmakers to “efficiently collect, analyze, and manage connected vehicle data for continuous feature development, deployment, and evolution.”
- Worked with Avnet, Verizon, Sequans and Microsoft to supply device developers with the elements they need to create LTE-M-based cellular IoT products, bring them quickly to market, and save them time and money.
- Joined the Silicon Validation Task Group, a working group consisting of silicon and IP vendors promoting time-sensitive networking—targeting network interoperability.
- Rolled out a new “automotive digital key solution” that enabled smartphones, key fobs and other mobile devices to securely communicate with vehicles—and serve to authenticate users, configure users’ driving rights and attach their entitlements.
- Worked with Swedish audio tech provider Dirac to provide the consumer market with higher-quality audio across the entire product spectrum, including smart speakers and soundbars.
- Brought out a new vehicle network processor—“a single-chip version” of an automotive microprocessor and an enterprise network processor—that it hoped would allow automotive OEMs and Tier 1s to check off many key attributes that constitute the software-defined vehicle.
Asked to identify NXP areas of expertise he is proud of, Reger cited:
- Introduction of the S32 automotive platform;
- The company’s ground-breaking work in secure element technology;
- NXP’s leadership in radar, the ability to surround a vehicle in a cocoon of safety, and
- The company’s leadership in ultra-wideband technology.
Today, projects on display for people who visit NXP here in Hamburg include:
- A SAMPL (secure additive manufacturing platform), which was co-founded by Germany’s Ministry of Research. It allows companies engaged in 3D printing spare parts, for example, to verify that the parts comply with established quality criteria. The project enables blockchain technology to allow only authorized companies to have access to 3D printing data. It also involves RFID tags, “so that afterward you can read the tag and know that the manufacturer had a license to produce this product,” NXP’s Christian Wiebus told EE Times.
- A UWB digital key solution that helps with localization. “The typical application is secure car access: When you come to your car, it opens up. Nobody should be enabled to start your car with the start button,” without the right fob, Wiebus said.
- A low-latency demonstrator, which uses a light curtain to act as a safety in potentially dangerous manufacturing situations. The wireless connectivity is secured by low-latency cryptology.
- A tracker solution to keep tabs on a product: its location, its temperature, and how often it has fallen from the truck, for example. It consists, of course, of a GPS receiver, a Sigfox transceiver (an 0G network transceiver available everywhere in Europe and in the US), sensors for things like temperature and acceleration and a battery. It’s all based on NXP silicon. (The GPS receiver is the only part that is not from NXP.)
- Vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology, in the form of a souped-up traffic light that uses wireless LAN to “get additional information to your car,” Wiebus said. “Maybe there is something with regard to construction sites or traffic jams. Or maybe there is a dangerous situation, or an ambulance coming from behind.” These traffic lights have two additions: a so-called roadside unit and an IR camera that together might be able to warn drivers of a likely collision between a bike and a bus.
- A HoverGames drone. NXP runs a coding and hardware contest for students using its HoverGames drone development kit—to develop solutions that make a positive impact on society. Reger said students previously tossed hand-warming heat packs into a river and let the drone with a little infrared camera fly. “I was inspired here by the harbor, asking, ‘How does Lars, the lifeguard, get people out of the water, find people, identify them?’ Ideally, you take our car communication to adjust the drones in front of the little rescue boat. They go up 100 meters altitude, 100 meters distance, each from the other. They scan the waterfront and look down with their infrared cameras. And if you find a warm body in the water, throw down a rescue pack or guide Lars, the lifeguard, with his boat there.”
Looking back, Reger feels he landed in the right place.
“In hindsight, I wanted to do medicine and physics to help people—to do something meaningful,” he said, wide-eyed and leaning forward. “With automatic robots, with better radar systems, with better accident avoidance, emergency call systems, maybe 20 years after I’m out of the job I’ll look back and say, ‘OK, I have achieved more than I ever dreamt of.
“At the moment, I have one of the coolest jobs in the tech industry. Electronics has become the main driver of innovation. Today, 98% of all innovation in a car is in the electronics, and the rest is a little bit mechanical engineering. Parents tell their kids, don’t study mechanical engineering anymore. Do electronics, hardware or, even better, software.”
What is next?
Reger is more than curious about what is behind the next wave for NXP; he needs to predict it correctly.
Top of mind, he said, is: “How do we identify and grow into new territories? Or, in nerd language, how do we innovate ourselves into new markets—ideally, of course, exploding markets? For example, in automotive, how do we go into radar? Automotive is growing at 8%. Radar is growing at 25%. We want to be in these markets that are lifting off like a rocket.”
Each year, NXP reviews about 220 business cases. The review protocol is what everyone would expect—with perhaps one addition—only for companies on solid financial footing.
“We just started building, with the help of the German government, quantum computers—right here in this building,” Reger said. “What is the revenue profile of a quantum computer? It’s zero. But I want to show very clearly that NXP is here the leading edge in research—so we can say to university talents globally, ‘Come here to Hamburg. Bring your brothers-in-law, your sisters who are also natural science addicts, and help us develop the management electronics you can use not only in quantum computers but also in cars and drones.’”