Nvidia, Intel and NXP stake out their connected car territories

The connected and autonomous car is one of the most competitive areas for chip designers and Nvidia and Intel stepped up their battle last week. Nvidia unveiled the next generation of its Drive PX sensor fusion computers – codenamed Pegasus. Meanwhile, Intel hopes to make a splash with a new mathematical formula to ensure that self-driving cars never crash, while ARM is racking up wins for its new Cortex-R52 core, with Denso announcing that it had taken out an extensive licence.

Nvidia seems to have significantly shrunk the size of the computer, with the on-stage presentation at its GTC event in Munich claiming that Pegasus is roughly the size of a licence plate – and capable of providing the compute power for Level 5 in the autonomous car spectrum. That’s enough for no human to be present in the car, and for the car to have no operational equipment (wheel, pedals, dials) inside.

The Pegasus system will house two of Nvidia’s Xavier SoCs (system-on-chips), flanked by two GPUs, based on the new Volta design, which claim to deliver 10 times the compute power of the predecessor product, the Drive PX2, clocking in at 320 trillion operations per second (TOPs).

By comparison, the Intel/Mobileye EyeQ5, currently in development, claims around 12 TOPs.

As it stands, Nvidia claims to cover all bases in self-driving silicon demand – with single mobile chips ready to power SAE Levels 2 and 3, and the new Pegasus design ready for Level 5. It further argues that its open software architecture and offerings mean that auto makers and their suppliers can reduce their development times, by using capabilities like AutoCruise and AutoChaffeur, which are part of the DriveWorks suite.

Notably, the announcement talks less about cars in general, and is instead quite specific about ‘robotaxis,’ – arguing that they will save millions of hours of lost driver time.

Nvidia also announced that DHL and ZF (a tier one automotive supplier) planned to deploy a test fleet of autonomous mail trucks in 2018, using ZF’s ProAI system (based on Nvidia’s Drive PX boards) for carrying out the last mile deliveries. An existing fleet of StreetScooter trucks, of which DHL currently has 3,400, will be upgraded with the boards, cameras, LiDAR, and radar, and will be aided by a DHL data center using Nvidia’s DGX-1 AI computer to train its neural networks.

Moving over to Nvidia’s chief rival in the sector, Intel and Mobileye have published an academic paper that contains a formula that offers a mathematical model that claims to “ensure a self-driving vehicle operates in a responsible manner, and does not cause accidents for which it can be blamed”. You can find the full paper here, and a layman’s version here.

The main thrust of the publication is the proposed Responsibility Sensitive Safety model, which aims to create a mathematical version of ‘responsibility and caution’ and define a ‘safe state’ where a self-driving car cannot be the cause of an accident, regardless of what other vehicles around it are doing.

It does make for an interesting read, and as it doesn’t rely on specific technologies or intellectual property (currently, at least), it could be adopted widely by the auto industry. Lawmakers and insurance companies will also be rather interested in the approach, as those two topics can spark nearly endless debate about challenges ahead for integrating autonomous vehicles on today’s roads – and if the model works as functioned, then it could iron out rather a lot of the concerns that are frequently expressed.

Elsewhere in the industry, Qualcomm’s acquisition target NXP is preparing to unveil a ‘whole vehicle’ platform to simplify its myriad automotive processors. Called NXP S32, it is apparently being designed to that the OEMs and their suppliers can better reuse code and software across the vehicle domains – such as drive-train, braking, stability management, HVAC, etc.

NXP doesn’t plan on releasing anything on that new platform until 2018. Qualcomm should have completed the acquisition by then but NXP will be wary that the likes of Intel and Nvidia are aiming to muscle in on a core market – as NXP is still the leading automotive chip supplier.

And the final piece of notable automotive news was that Denso, another major auto supplier, has taken a license for ARM’s new Cortex-R52 architecture for embedded processors, which it plans to use to create chips that comply with very strict safety regulations. ARM says that the R52 is being rapidly adopted by “the worldwide design community as the go-to solution for embedded functional safety”.

“Partnering with ARM gives us access to its vast ecosystem and will allow us to continue to drive toward enabling the next generation of safe, highly automated driving systems and vehicle control,” said Hideki Sugimoto, project general manager for the electronics R&D division at Denso. “As the automotive revolution continues, our focus is on working with partners to build the right technologies to meet changing industry needs. We evaluated the Cortex-R52 and concluded that the processor’s functional safety capabilities were an excellent match for advanced future automotive applications. Denso, along with our newly established subsidiary NSITEXE, will now work to further enhance these solutions.”