Chip-maker driven by digital dream
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The car of the future will be the most powerful computer you’ll ever own, packing the processing power of a supercomputer into a box the size of a car stereo, according to American chip-maker Nvidia.
The third generation Audi A8, launched in 2009, was the first car to use an Nvidia graphics processor to power its 3D navigation system display.
Today, eight million cars use Nvidia’s processors — including models from Tesla, Volkswagen, Honda and Mercedes as well as Audi — but Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive at Nvidia, claims the company is just getting started.
“We have contracts with a lot of automakers, so over the next several years we’re going to grow that number by over 25 million,” he said.
“Younger ... buyers have grown up with iPhones and iPads, so the expectation is that if you’re going to spend this much money on a car, the electronics in the car should be at least as good as your tablet.”
Increasing demand for high-quality digital displays inside cars — including dashboard navigation systems, virtual instrument clusters and rear-seat entertainment systems — is pushing manufacturers to look beyond their traditional suppliers.
The Tesla Model S, for example, has a 17-inch touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard, which replaces almost every button in the car, and can be used to control everything from the air conditioning to the suspension settings and sunroof.
The Mercedes F015 concept car envisages the interior of the car as a “digital living space,” allowing passengers to interact intuitively with the connected vehicle by means of gestures and high-resolution touchscreens, while the Audi Prologue turns the car’s entire instrument panel into single touchscreen display.
Shapiro said Nvidia’s ambition is to make what is displayed on the screen better match the physical world inside the vehicle.
The Tegra X1 processor, which powers its Drive CX cockpit visualisation computer, is capable of delivering one trillion floating-point operations per second (flops) — the same as a 488sq m supercomputer from 2000.
This means it can render 3D maps with advanced lighting effects, and provide detailed surround vision to help with parking and other manoeuvres.
“When the design team see this they start drooling, because the instrument cluster is almost like the jewel in the crown” he said. “So we’re seeing a lot of craftsmanship, adding shadows and lighting, and it can change according to the preferences of the driver or the mode that the car is in.”
Nvidia is still, however, a niche player in the automotive chip business. Larger companies like Texas Instruments, Intel and Qualcomm currently dominate the market, and automotive sales represented just 4 per cent of Nvidia’s £3 billion ($6.3 billion) revenue in its most recent fiscal year.
However, Shapiro claims that there has been an evolution in the thinking of car makers, in terms of electronics. The company expects automotive revenue of $248 million this year, and has booked more than $2.7 billion in future automotive business.
But Nvidia’s real ambition is to conquer the driverless cars market. To this end, the company recently launched the Drive PX autopilot computer, which takes in data from up to 12 cameras around the car, and combines it with extensive “deep learning” to teach the car to sense and interpret what is taking place around it.
“It can learn much like a child learns by identifying things in a scene in advance. Then it can go back and understand, and we can teach it to recognise all different types of signs, different lanes, different cars, different people,” said Mr Shapiro.
The company has worked with Audi on its zFAS self-driving car technology, which was demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, when a driverless Audi A7 car travelled over 885km from San Francisco to the event in Las Vegas.
It is generally thought that driverless cars will reduce the number of accidents caused by human error. Tesla’s founder Elon Musk has even suggested that driving may someday be illegal, because it is too dangerous.
Shapiro said that car makers are likely to take a staged approach to driverless features in cars.
While taking your hands off the steering wheel and feet off the pedals on the motorway is well within the capabilities of existing technology, allowing your car to navigate itself through a city is a different matter. -Telegraph