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30 June 2017

Nvidia ramps up auto deals, Waymo leaps into trucks

Nvidia seems to be accelerating its connected car progress, this week announcing a deal with ZF and Hella to combine their offerings, as well as a deal with Volvo and Autoliv to drive the Zenuity joint-venture for self-driving software. It comes in the same week that Waymo has started bringing its LiDAR designs to trucks, as its truck-related Otto-Uber lawsuit rumbles on.

For Nvidia, the self-driving vehicle market is becoming an increasingly core focus for the GPU developer – expanding from its traditional consumer video card market, into AI-focused server-grade accelerator cards, and now into the silicon that powers the sensor-fusion boards in these increasingly autonomous vehicles. Its GPUs act as the brains that make sense of the multitude of sensor inputs (video, LiDAR, radar, ultrasound, telematics units, etc.).

With the ZF-Hella deal, the goal is to create a self-driving offering for automotive OEMs that meets the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) – the safety standard that has been used since the 1970s. Starting with SAE Level-3 targets (self-driving, but with driver always ready to intervene), the trio aim to leverage Nvidia’s Drive PX 2, Hella’s cameras and radar systems, and ZF Tier-1 supplier expertise – delivering self-driving cars by 2021.

ZF (privately owned, with 2015 revenues of around $33bn) and Hella (2016 revenues of around $6bn), are both German companies. Nvidia has previously worked with ZF (see below), but the addition of Hella fleshes out its bundled offering. It’s a sign of the huge number of partnerships and relationships that have to be managed in the increasingly intertwined automotive industry – due to the staggering number of components in a modern vehicle.

ZF’s CEO, Stefan Sommer, said “we are building up a powerful ecosystem step by step. Earlier this year, ZF became the first supplier to adopt Nvidia AI technology for cars and commercial vehicles in the ZF ProAI box. Just a few days ago, Hella and ZF joined forces in a non-exclusive partnership, and now together we are partnering with Nvidia to make our roads safer and to support the development of autonomous driving functions.”

In the Volvo and Autoliv deal, the trio will work on creating software via the Zenuity joint-venture, which Volvo will then use in its cars – running on Nvidia’s processing hardware. Volvo has been using Nvidia’s hardware in its self-driving tests, and Nvidia has also racked up wins with Toyota and Audi (with Delphi winning the contract to supply Audi’s zFAS sensor-fusion board, which houses Nvidia’s Drive PX platform).

Volvo and Autoliv ($9.8bn market cap) first announced their intent to form a joint venture back in September 2016, with the plan to license and transfer their intellectual property to the joint venture. Now that Nvidia is onboard, and the Zenuity brand confirmed (with Volvo and Autoliv each owning half of the business), Autoliv will be the exclusive supplier and distribution channel for the new products to third-parties – with Volvo sourcing directly from Zenuity.

The new focus will see all three companies collaborate with Zenuity, using Nvidia’s computing platform as the foundation for software development – and hopefully solving the problem of proper kangaroo detection.

Autoliv’s CEO, Jan Carlson, said “with Nvidia, we now have full access to the lading AI computing platform for autonomous driving. Autoliv, Volvo Cars, and Nvidia, share the same vision for safe autonomous driving. This cooperation will further advance our leading ADAS and autonomous driving offerings to the market.”

The other major camp in the industry is governed by Intel, which spent $15.3bn to acquire Mobileye – a leader in the machine-vision silicon and software. That price is indicative of the money tied up in the automotive pipeline, as the deal was over 30x Mobileye’s current revenues.

So, Intel-Mobileye and BMW formed a self-driving alliance that aims to put a fleet of autonomous cars on the roads in 2021. That group has later attracted Delphi and Continental – both major OEMs. Delphi recently put it drivetrain business up for sale in an effort to streamline its focus on self-driving technology.

Bosch, another huge automotive OEM, has a similar alliance with Daimler (Mercedes-Benz), but has also partnered with Nvidia to use its new Xavier GPU in self-driving designs.

As for the Waymo news, the first pictures of the Alphabet subsidiary’s self-driving truck experiments have emerged, following its confirmation that it was developing such systems earlier this month. It’s a notable development, due to the current legal dispute that is playing out between Waymo and Uber – where Waymo alleges that Uber acquired a pile of stolen IP when the ride-sharing platform acquired Otto, a company also focused on self-driving trucks.

Jalopnik’s images, from an anonymous source and not an official Waymo outlet, show what looks like a Peterbilt 579 tractor, with an array of LiDAR and radar sensors. The design is pretty unobtrusive, adorning the roof of the truck, with a smaller radar emitter on the front grill. The roof-array looks like it covers the tractor sufficiently, but it is unclear how the system would be monitoring the environment behind the trailer.

Uber’s Otto wing had used retrofitted Volvo trucks in public trials, shipping trailers of Budweiser for Anheuser-Busch between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs – a 120-mile trip. The Waymo unit looks like it could be following a similar retrofit path, but the technology would eventually be integrated into the designs of the tractors – via automotive OEMs.

The Waymo-Uber lawsuit hasn’t thrown up any mention of Waymo’s trucking ambitions, but it will be interesting to see if any of the 14,000 documents allegedly stolen had designs specific to trucking – which Otto’s founder and the man at the center of this case, Anthony Levandowski, might have used in the Otto designs.

Uber has now admitted that it knew that Levandowski had discs with Waymo documents on them in March 2016, but that they were destroyed by Lewandowski before he was acquired by Uber. The company, whose CEO has now been forced to step down due to investor pressure, said it didn’t know whether those discs actually contained any of the documents concerned in the case.

Waymo is very quiet on details, but confirmed that it was using one truck at the beginning of June, manually driving it to collect operational data. Waymo hasn’t said whether the truck has been driven autonomously yet, or if the truck even has that capability. Waymo only notes that it is “taking our eight years of experience in building self-driving hardware and software and conducting a technical exploration into how our technology can integrate into a truck.” Wired says that Waymo is planning road tests in Arizona later this year, with a human at the wheel.

Daimler’s Freightliner division was one of the first to unveil a self-driving prototype, but the sector also has the attention of Volvo – with both freight trucks and garbage trucks. In a comprehensive industry initiative, a fleet of connected trucks demonstrated the benefits of coordinated driving in the European Truck Platooning Challenge – which used a V2V WiFi link to boost fuel efficiency.