Looking ahead: One of the biggest challenges facing large semiconductor companies is that they have to make big bets on key technologies and markets many years before they become commonplace. In our increasingly digital world, chips are the most important fundamental component necessary to enable new types of innovation, which in turn lead to the creation of new product categories or the reinvention of older ones. Such is the case in today’s automotive market, which is witnessing a transformation of capabilities, architecture and design, all driven by chip-powered digital technologies.
A few years ago, many of the world’s largest semiconductor companies, including Nvidia, Qualcomm, Intel and others, began making plans for what they saw as the next big category of digital devices: the smart connected car.
Now that we see the debut of 2023 model year cars with increasingly sophisticated technology-enabled features, it’s clear that those early bets are starting to pay off. Each of these major technology providers — all of which have typically focused on end-user computing devices such as PCs and smartphones — are making important advances in the automotive industry. In fact, everyone is now beginning to highlight signs of the increasing importance that an automotive supplier’s role has in their bottom line.
For example, at its recent GTC conference, Nvidia highlighted how it is using its next-generation GPU technology for a variety of different automotive applications, including assisted and autonomous driving and infotainment functions. Similarly, Qualcomm hosted an investor day last month to discuss the company’s fast-growing pipeline in the automotive space. Finally, Intel just announced that it will be spinning off its Mobileye division, in what will prove to be a major financial boon after buying the Israel-based company focused on ADAS (advanced driver-assistance systems) technology in 2017.
In the case of Nvidia, the company has released many previous iterations of its GPU-powered technology for the automotive market, but with each successive generation, the company enables more powerful capabilities and reaches new applications. After years of success using car infotainment systems, the company has taken on the more challenging task of assisted driving functions and is now continuing to work on a higher level of autonomous driving.
The company’s new Drive Thor platform is powered by the latest Ada Lovelace generation of GPU technology, the latest Arm-based Grace CPU technology that the company announced earlier this year, and the AI capabilities of the Hopper Multi -Corporate instance GPU technology for AI acceleration.
With Drive Thor, automakers can consolidate intelligent vehicle functions onto a single SoC.
Together, these enable a whopping 2 teraflops of performance. In the real world, this means Drive Thor can be used to enable most of the key technology-driven functions in a modern car – including ADAS and some autonomous driving functions, automated parking, infotainment controls, driver and passenger monitoring, and instrument cluster controls – from a single platform.
This is an important advance as many of these functions were previously performed by separate chips. In fact, many automakers or Tier 1 automotive suppliers would often select chips from different vendors to perform these different functions. Because of this, it’s relatively common to hear multiple chip vendors talk about how they’ve won orders from the same vendor, and sometimes even the same models. They were used for various functions.
With Drive Thor, starting in 2025, Nvidia will offer automakers the opportunity to integrate more of these capabilities into a single platform. Given the sheer complexity of today’s cars, that’s a potentially big win for everyone involved. For Nvidia, of course, it’s gaining more business and establishing itself as an even more critical supplier. For automakers, integrating multiple functions into a single digital platform can help simplify the car’s overall architecture, which should lead to more reliable operation and reduce the cost and complexity associated with combining multiple platforms into a single vehicle.
Drive Thor enables this multi-function support by running multiple different applications simultaneously through a virtualized software environment (conceptually similar to servers in data centers and in the cloud) that Nvidia calls multi-domain computing.
Essentially, this allows Drive Thor to replicate in software the many physical domain controllers that have powered various automotive functions in cars for decades. Also unique to Drive Thor compared to previous-generation Nvidia automotive hardware is an inference transformer engine that the company says can deliver a 9x improvement in executing the types of neural networks that lie at the heart of assisted and autonomous driving functions . To round out the news, Nvidia also announced that Chinese automaker Zeeker (part of Geely Automotive Group, which also includes Volvo) will be the first to use Drive Thor as a computing platform, starting with cars built in 2025.
At its Automotive Investor Day, Qualcomm also announced a new automotive technology offering called the Snapdragon Ride Flex SoC (although it didn’t detail it). Like Nvidia’s Drive Thor, Qualcomm’s Ride Flex is said to be powerful enough to support all key computer-assisted driving functions in a smart, connected car, but full details on the chip aren’t expected until CES 2023 in January.
Qualcomm has also been releasing products for the automotive industry for many years, and already launched a renewed automotive strategy in early 2022 with the Snapdragon Digital Chassis program. Digital Chassis integrates several distinct capabilities, such as Snapdragon Digital Cockpit for in-vehicle infotainment and Snapdragon Ride for assisted and autonomous driving, into a single platform that automakers can either pick and choose from or join together – a path that may evolve more popular with the debut of the Ride Flex SoC.
Qualcomm’s history with the auto industry goes back much further, as the company has been supplying communication peripherals like cellular modems, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth chips to cars for several decades. Most telematics systems like GM’s OnStar and its equivalent are usually powered by Qualcomm’s connectivity chips. Given the increasingly software-defined nature of modern cars, as well as the critical need and potential new business opportunities for over-the-air upgrades, the “connected” part of the smart, connected car is becoming significantly more important.
As a result of these long-term ties, the company announced at its investor event that its automotive revenue pipeline grew from $19 billion over the course of just a few months, including Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar and Stellantis. Additionally, Qualcomm announced a partnership with Mercedes Benz to bring Digital Cockpit capabilities and the Snapdragon Automotive Connectivity Platform to future Mercedes vehicles.
For its part, Intel announced plans to spin off its Mobileye division in a much-anticipated IPO. Mobileye was an early leader in assisted driving functions through camera-controlled and intelligent map-based technology and has established partnerships with virtually every major car manufacturer around the world. Recently, the company has added support for lidar and other sensors with its True Redundancy platform and is increasingly moving toward more autonomous driving capabilities.
When Intel bought Mobileye just over 5 years ago, it was one of the first signs of the growing importance of the automotive sector for large semiconductor companies. Since then, Intel has continued to nurture the company and help it grow. Now the company hopes to “cash in” its investment with the newly announced IPO and use some of those funds to pursue its own aggressive plans for new chip manufacturing facilities.
Smart, connected cars will be an incredibly important part of the future growth of not only the big chipmakers like Nvidia, Qualcomm, Intel and AMD, but also lesser known ones
As is the case with many long-term forecasts, the cooperation between the large semiconductor companies and the automotive industry did not turn out as initially expected. Because we are still a long way from fully autonomous Level 5 cars for private individuals – despite strong forecasts and enormous efforts by the tech industry.
However, there’s no question that smart, connected cars will be an incredibly important part of the future growth of not only the big chipmakers like Nvidia, Qualcomm, Intel, and AMD, but also lesser-known ones like Marvell, Lattice Semiconductor, and many others.
In fact, recent reports from major investment banks suggest that 45% of a car’s components could be technology-related in the next 10 years. As the high-tech connection to the automotive industry continues to evolve, we are also seeing tremendous growth in cloud-connected automotive services. In summary, it’s a great (and insightful) example of the impact semiconductors and technology can have on traditional industries at large. It can also be a foreshadowing of other interesting reinvention opportunities to come.
Bob O’Donnell is Founder and Principal Analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC, a technology consulting firm providing strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and the professional finance community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
Photo credit: Riccardo
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