Intel pushes new self-drive framework with cold-war coalition of the willing

A group of 11 ‘industry leaders’ have put their name to the Safety First for Automated Driving (SFAD) framework, intended to guide the design, development, verification, and validation of autonomous vehicles. This is a political move, tying these partners together against a rival – Nvidia’s Safety Force Field (SFF).

This new SFAD is an evolution of the Mobileye Responsibility Sensitive Safety (RSS) framework, which preceded Nvidia’s SFF and was conspicuously absent in the Nvidia launch. Intel Mobileye was quite sour about this, claiming that despite the “uncanny similarities” it failed to match the RSS. The two rivals were clearly positioned, with Nvidia wanting to supply its Drive platform to automakers looking for centralized computing systems for their cars, and Intel and Mobileye pushing their combined offerings under the Intel banner.

The SFAD coalition consists of Aptiv, Audi, Baidu, BMW, Continental, Daimler, Fiat Chrysler, Here, Infineon, Intel, and VW. This contains the largest automaker, the VW group including Audi, as well as the other two main German automakers. That trio of German marques are the majority owners of Here, in which Intel is also a shareholder, which is a mapping platform powering the IVI and navigation systems for connected cars. It’s rather incestuous.

Aptiv is the lidar and software focused spinout from Delphi, while Continental is one of the largest OEMs in the market – despite its crushing fall in share price over the last year. Infineon is a major provider of chips for the automotive industry, while Baidu is one of the Chinese web giants that has significant automotive ambitions. Fiat-Chrysler meanwhile isn’t sure if it wants to buy Renault-Nissan or just one of its component parts.

So then, in terms of natural rivals, the companies that you should be paying attention to include TomTom (Here), Toyota (the number-two automaker currently), Waymo (another major lidar advocate), NXP (the other major chip provider in this sector), likely Alibaba and Tencent (the other main Chinese web titans), and the other major US carmakers.

Unsurprisingly, Nvidia has allies in some of these already. It announced a Toyota partnership at its developer conference, where Nvidia and the Toyota Research Institute’s Advanced Development (TRI-AD) wing will be developing autonomous vehicles, as Toyota committed to using Nvidia’s Drive AGX Xavier platform.

TomTom seems to striking deals with some of the new SFAD coalition, with Baidu, FCA and VW at least, although the mapping side of things seems more promiscuous than the hardware. Here and TomTom share customers, because automakers use different options for different car models and regional skews. TomTom and Continental-rival Bosch are also close partners.

Also notable is that Nvidia will be leading the working group for autonomous cars within the European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA), in news that was announced on the same day that SFAD was published. Nvidia is also working with ISO, the UN Economic Commission of Europe (UNECE), the US NHTSA, and the Association for Standardization of Automation and Measuring Systems (ASAM).

So then, it does seem like we’re seeing a cold-war brewing, coalescing around Nvidia and Intel, who are both desperate to become the foundational platform for connected and autonomous vehicles. In time, we expect there to be less overlap between the customer bases of each side, and we also anticipate major consolidation in the automotive industry, as the OEMs begin acquiring smaller specialist OEMs to flesh out their portfolios – to become better vertically integrated options for the automakers.

So then, what is the SFAD? The document contains ’12 guiding principles,’ with a breakdown of the steps on how to achieve each one, spread out over 157-pages. Mobileye’s RSS appears as the Drive Planning Element (DPE), but the whitepaper spans everything from user responsibility, security, and behavior in traffic. While lengthy, it’s not enough to actually build a self-driving car from, so it’s not a blueprint, but it does describe the principles behind how the car should be used and how it should behave while driving. It’s a solid middle-ground between blue-sky whitepaper and an actual standards document.

The coalition vies SFAD as a ‘living document,’ which will evolve over time. It doesn’t specify vendor technologies either, which at least makes it overtly vendor-neutral. Whether the Nvidia coalition comes round to the common ground that SFAD is trying to introduce remains to be seen, but from the outside, there is nothing preventing that happening.

There has been no public talk of using SFAD as the basis for a new industry standard, to move past the ISO 26262 that has guided most development so far, but SFAD looks like it has ambitions in that realm. Nvidia’s new CLEPA project is one to watch in that regard, but the two are going to keep lobbying and positioning themselves as leaders for the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen how popular this peacocking will prove with the automakers.

“Industry collaboration on the safety of automated vehicles is key to realizing a safe and responsible autonomous future. We are proud to have contributed to the groundbreaking work to establish a framework for introducing automated vehicles that are safe by design. We look forward to collaboration with additional industry partners on this comprehensive framework as well as on Intel’s RSS model,” said Jack Weast, Intel senior principal engineer and vice president of Automated Vehicle Standards at Mobileye.