Nvidia continues quest to bring computer power to cars

Company has supplied Tesla, Audi

Dustin Walsh covers suppliers for Crain's Detroit Business, an affiliate of Automotive News.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- A year after opening an office in Ann Arbor, Mich., computer processor maker Nvidia Corp. continues its quest to bring modern computer power to the automobile.

For good reason. The connected car market is estimated to be worth $132 billion by 2019, according to a recent study by Transparency Market Research.

Nvidia is positioned to benefit as the lines blur between mobile devices, which now include the automobile. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is a $4.3 billion-a-year supplier of computing processors to the gaming industry, design software makers and consumer electronics industry.

Already featured in Audi models and expanding into Volkswagen Group’s entire stable, Nvidia is targeting domestic automakers for its high-end processors specific to infotainment and advanced safety, Danny Shapiro, Nvidia's automotive director, said this week at the 2014 Management Briefing Seminars here.

Shapiro said domestic automakers have operated with a different mindset than European carmakers when it comes to automotive computing, but are catching up.

“They’ve typically had a different mindset when approaching our technology,” Shapiro said. “We’re not a tier-two chip supplier; the key is not thinking about our product as an electronic component.”

While Nvidia supplies the processor for infotainment systems, safety systems, etc., it’s the customized software developed with the automaker that optimizes its product, Shapiro said.

Tesla product

The Tesla Model S, which features a 17-inch touchscreen display powered by Nvidia’s Tegra processor, is the model for future infotainment systems. It’s large, it’s snappy, and it controls nearly everything from heating and cooling to the moonroof to the car’s suspension.

Shapiro said as mass-market models continue in Tesla’s direction, customization becomes more critical.

At MBS, Shaprio demonstrated a Jeep Grand Cherokee outfitted with a similar touchscreen to the Model S and graphic instrument cluster, but with the ability to customize its look.

“Imagine a screen on a Mustang that could resemble the look of a 1969 model; the retro look,” Shapiro said. “Enthusiasts would pay for that.”

Power of choice

Shapiro envisions an automotive dash and cluster app store, putting the power of choice in consumers’ hands.

But computing extends beyond entertainment and curb appeal. Nvidia is working with automakers to make cars that can learn. Over-the-air updating can add new safety features as technology advances.

“Customers are keeping their cars longer, and automakers have to plan for their own product obsolescence,” Shapiro said. “There’s no reason cars can’t get better once they’ve left the lot.”

You can reach Dustin Walsh at dwalsh@crain.com

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