Meet David Higham: Focusing on functional safety

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It’s well understood that building a car today relies heavily on electronics, so much so that a recent shortage in manufacturing capacity for chips forced leading Tier 1 vendors to halt production while they waited for parts. Supply issues aside, the safety of the electronics in automotive is now so heavily relied on it has its own safety standard, called ISO 26262.

The ISO 26262 Digital Conference is a not-for-profit functional safety event organised by safety practitioners heavily involved with ISO 26262 and is designed to provide opportunities for those in the industry to network, share knowledge and engage in discussions. For obvious reasons, the event this year is taking place entirely online and will run between 24th – 25th March 2021. It will consist of a two-day program with face-to-face networking sessions, live-streamed keynote presentations and a selection of related papers, chat room discussions, expert talks and beginners’ safe spaces.

David Higham

At the event David Higham, Senior Principal Functional Safety Engineer at Imagination, will be chairing a panel session entitled, ““The 26262 Re-Emergence”, will be co-presenting “Mindset, process and technology for functional safety at an IP level” (along with Jamie Broome, Imagination’s Senior Director of Product Management, Automotive), and will be co-hosting the STPA workshop.

In the run-up to the event, I spoke to David to find out more about his role and the work he and his team have been doing on functional safety at Imagination.

David, how long has functional safety been a priority for Imagination?

We’ve always had safety at the heart of our processes, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that we wanted to raise awareness of this externally. We have a dedicated team of functional safety engineers, covering all the functional safety projects in the organisation, encompassing graphic processing units (GPU), neural network accelerators (NNA), and Ethernet Packer Processors (EPP).

What is the role of your team?

It’s our job to disseminate the understanding of what’s required throughout the company, to make sure the teams QMS processes and documentation are fully aligned to ISO 26262.

Last year Imagination was independently audited for functional safety. Why did you go down this path?

We were confident we had strong processes in place, so we invited Horiba Mira (an accredited independent safety audit company) to come in and inspect those processes and following this we were pleased to receive a statement of conformance in May 2020.

What’s the next stage for you concerning functional safety?

The next phase is that we have them conducting audit activities on a specific project. From a technical perspective, we have layers of safety mechanisms within the product. We have traditional things such as memory protection and watchdogs on parts of the architecture, but we have also taken a higher-level holistic approach. This means that for some of our products we can provide safety measures focused on the item/vehicle level use cases, not just on hardware component failures.

We have had some great success in the use of a safety analysis technique called STPA. It’s enabled us to gauge the criticalities of the failures of elements of the system, to understand how we can protect specific areas of the screen in the car.  We have brought this into our latest GPUs – IMG B-Series – as a safety mechanism called Tile Region Protection. The system integrator can decide what areas need to be functionally safe, and which don’t, which allows for a balance between performance and safety.  We feel this is a differentiator from a graphics perspective.

What other products are benefiting from this focus on functional safety?

We also do compute, so we’re developing safety mechanisms that encourage customers to think about how they might want to use our products, such as our NNA, for ADAS. We are also providing our customers with tools that are vital to helping them understand how our safety is implemented and that provide them with a consistent approach to interfacing with their product in the wider system.

How do you see the market understanding of functional safety evolving?

We’ve done a lot in the last couple of years, and things are always changing which can be a challenge. We’re seeing that as automotive OEMs and silicon vendors understand that a GPU can be made functionally safe they want this, and are looking for our help to make their products ASIL B certifiable.

Do you find that you are working even closer with your customers?

Absolutely. We need to understand how the system will be used so we know how to adapt our offering to fit. This is driven by conversations with customers but also by forward-thinking from us about where we think the safety focus should be.

Benny Har-Even

Benny Har-Even

With a background in technology journalism stretching back to the late 90s, Benny Har-Even has written for many of the top UK technology publications, across both consumer and B2B and has appeared as an expert on BBC World Business News and BBC Radio Five Live. He is now Content Manager at Imagination Technologies.

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