Bombshells are a common occurrence in Tesla's quarterly analyst calls, and the latest was no exception. As soon as CEO Elon Musk introduced the call, he turned the microphone over to members of his Autopilot team who announced that Tesla had spent three years developing a custom "neural network accelerator" chip that is now nearly ready to power its upcoming autonomous hardware suite.
According to Pete Bannon, Tesla's director of Autopilot hardware engineering, Tesla already has drop-in chip replacements for the Model S, X, and 3. "The chips are up and working," he says. "All have been driven in the field."
If you are not neck-deep in the world of autonomous vehicle chip design, this may not seem like a big deal. But for people in the know, such as executives at chip makers Nvidia and Intel, Tesla's announcement makes it clear the company thinks it can make bigger advances in self-driving cars on its own.
Tesla's development of a new chip specifically for its self-driving hardware is the latest example of the firm's commitment to vertical integration, meaning it makes a lot of components in its own factories, including Tesla seats. Currently Tesla uses Nvidia Drive PX2 boards in its vehicles. Just two years ago, Musk hailed Nvidia's boards as "basically a supercomputer in a car."
"Nvidia's complete platform is of course a powerful system, built to automotive grade, but it may not be perfect for what Tesla wants to use it for," says Mike Ramsey, automotive research director at Gartner. "Probably more important, Elon and Tesla feel like they need to own this technology. If they think the chip vendors are slowing them down, or locking them into a certain architecture or into a long-term design from which they cannot easily escape, then building your own chip makes some sense."