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Tesla’s Autopilot chip supplier NVIDIA on new self-driving system: ‘It’s basically 5 yrs ahead and coming in 2017’


NVIDIA reported its financial results for the last quarter yesterday and surprised Wall Street. The chip maker, which is now becoming an “AI company” according to its leadership, reported revenue of $2 billion on expectations of $1.7 billion and they also surpassed earnings expectations by a similar margin.

On a conference call with CEO Jen-Hsun Huang following the results, analysts were particularly interested in the company’s push in AI and the automotive industry, especially since Tesla’s started delivering every single one of its vehicles with NVIDIA’s Drive PX2 supercomputer.

Huang offered some very interesting insights into how he sees Tesla’s self-driving program playing out.

He says that by introducing the necessary hardware for full autonomy now, Tesla  “sent a shock wave through the automotive industry”:

“And I think what Tesla has done by launching and having on the road in the very near-future here, a full autonomous driving capability using AI, that has sent a shock wave through the automotive industry. It’s basically five years ahead. Anybody who’s talking about 2021 and that’s just a non-starter anymore. And I think that that’s probably the most significant bit in the automotive industry. I just don’t – anybody who is talking about autonomous capabilities in 2020 and 2021 is at the moment re-evaluating in a very significant way.”

Huang continued by saying that autonomous driving is not a “detection problem” but an “AI problem” and he insists that it’s going to be solved in 2017.

Of course, Huang is a little biased because if Tesla manages to solve that problem in 2017 like he predicts, the first self-driving cars will be powered by his machine, the Drive PX 2, and the rest of the auto industry is likely to turn to NVIDIA for their own in-car processing power.

When NVIDIA and Tesla confirmed the use of Drive PX2 in the new Autopilot and Self-Driving Capable hardware suite, people started speculating about the price of the supercomputer. Huang didn’t confirm it exactly during the call yesterday by mentioned a vague “few thousand dollars”.

When an analyst asked why Tesla decided to use NVIDIA’s technology for the second generation Autopilot and not Mobileye’s, Tesla’s former chip maker for the Autopilot program, Huang described three main reasons:

  • It’s an AI computing problem and NVIDIA’s GPU platform is better for AI.
  • Scalable with OTA updates to build an autonomous fleet service.
  • And finally, energy efficiency.

Here’s his response in full:

I think there are three things that we offer today. The first thing is that it’s not a detection problem it’s an AI computing problem. And a computer has processors, and the architecture is coherent and you can program it, you can write software, you can compile to it. It’s an AI computing problem. And our GPU computing architecture has the benefit of 10 years of refinement. In fact, this year is the 10-year anniversary of our first GPU, our first CUDA GPU called G80. And we’ve been working on this for 10 years. And so the number one is autonomous driving. Autonomous vehicles is a AI computing problem. It’s not a detection problem.

Second, car companies realize that they need to deliver – ultimately – a service, that the service is a network of cars by which they continuously improve. It’s like phones. It’s like phones. It’s like set-top boxes. You have to maintain and serve that customer because they’re interested in the service of autonomous driving. It’s not a functionality. Autonomous driving is always being improved with better maps and better driving behavior and better perception capability and better AI. And so the software component of it, the software component of it and the ability for car companies to own their own software once they develop it on our platform is a real positive. And real positive to the point where it’s enabling or it’s essential for the future of the driving fleet.

And then the third – to be able to continue to do OTA on. And third is simply the performance and energy level. I don’t believe it’s actually possible at this moment in time to deliver an AI computing platform of the performance level that is required to do autonomous driving at an energy efficiency level that is possible in a car and to put all that functionality together in a reasonable way. I believe DRIVE PX 2 is the only viable solution on the planet today. And so I – because Tesla had a great intention to deliver this level of capability to the world five years ahead of anybody else, we were a great partner for them. Okay? So those are probably the three reasons.

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