Nvidia, Intel battle to supply autonomous cars

Deal with Toyota is latest salvo in competition

Nvidia's Shapiro: "There aren't many companies building supercomputers to go inside the car."

SAN JOSE, Calif. — In a keynote address Wednesday, May 10, at the San Jose Convention Center — less than 10 miles south of the automotive innovation center Intel opened a week earlier — Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang said the chipmaker's autonomous driving platform would be in the self-driving vehicles of one of the largest automakers in the world — Toyota.

With the announcement, which was part of Nvidia's annual GPU Technology Conference, the company asserted its position as the dominant supplier of the brains of self-driving vehicles. The need for high-powered computer processing in autonomous vehicles has given rise to a new breed of supplier, and has created a small, but highly competitive playing field.

"There aren't many companies building supercomputers to go inside the car," Danny Shapiro, director of automotive at Nvidia, said in an interview. "More and more automakers are viewing Nvidia as the solution for autonomous vehicles."

Nvidia and Intel have emerged as the primary players to supply the autonomous vehicle supercomputer, and the competition has become fierce as the two continue to announce automaker partnerships.

Shapiro said Nvidia has more than 225 "engagements" — relationships ranging from research partnerships to supplier agreements — involving its autonomous driving platform with companies including automakers, Tier 1 suppliers and startups. Nvidia is publicly working with Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Tesla, Bosch and ZF, in addition to Toyota.

The versatility of Nvidia's platform is part of what makes it attractive to a variety of automotive companies. It can work with any type of sensor and companies can choose exactly what functions they want to use the platform for, from driver assistance features to full self-driving capability.

Because self-driving vehicles are still in development and not turning profits, automakers are limited to how much money they can spend on suppliers, said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific. Because of this limitation, companies are choosing one chipmaker to power their autonomous operations.

"Nvidia's platform allows automakers to competitively bid for other parts of the car, which is a benefit for some," Sullivan said.

Intel, which announced its self-driving ambitions last year, is the largest chip supplier for personal computers. With its $15.3 billion acquisition of camera sensor maker Mobileye in March, the Silicon Valley giant signaled its intentions to hold a major stake in automotive as well.

"We firmly believe we have what it takes to succeed in the autonomous driving market," said Kathy Winter, vice president of Intel's automated driving group, in response to Nvidia's partnership with Toyota.

Thus far, Intel has publicly partnered with BMW and Delphi, though Winter said other deals are in the works.

Qualcomm, which has developed a solid reputation for wireless technology in vehicles and is developing a connected self-driving platform, is also becoming a player to watch.

As self-driving vehicles develop and become more complex, it's possible these chipmakers will have to work alongside each other to power new capabilities.

"We are going after similar customers," Shapiro said. "But in some cases, it's not going to be just one processor in the car."

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