Cars become computers on wheels

David Sedgwick is a special correspondent for Automotive News

Here's yet more evidence that the auto industry's center of gravity, at least for cool new technology, is shifting from Detroit to Silicon Valley.

The r&d required to develop the underlying architecture for the computer chip that powers a vehicle's infotainment system can easily top $1 billion.

That's what Nvidia spent to develop its Tegra K1 graphics processing unit. The Tegra K1 is designed for next-generation infotainment systems that will feature photo-realistic digital instrument clusters and high-resolution center console maps with 3-D street views.

That's a lot of money for a computer chip. I asked Rob Csongor, vice president of Nvidia Corp.'s automotive division, how the company could sell enough of those processors to automakers to justify the investment. His answer: Nvidia can't.

Csongor, who was in Detroit for the SAE International convention, said the trick is to develop computer chips that can be adapted for a variety of uses, such as video games, robotics and supercomputers.

By spreading its r&d costs over several industries, Nvidia can produce an affordable computer chip for its automotive customers.

But for auto executives, that $1 billion chip is a wake-up call.

For this key technology, North America's automakers depend on the whims of the video game industry.

Now that automakers are introducing more sophisticated collision-avoidance technology, a vehicle might, in theory, be equipped with as many as four Tegra chips.

Car and Driver magazine estimates that a two-car garage would pack as much computational power as Los Alamos National Laboratory's $120 million supercomputer circa 1998.

Nvidia seems determined to carve out a niche. On Jan. 6, Google announced an alliance with Nvidia, Audi, General Motors, Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. to integrate the Android operating system into their infotainment systems.

Now that tens of millions of motorists pack Android smartphones, it's a safe bet that other automakers will join this group. Keep your eye on Nvidia.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com



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