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Chips, ahoy: Intel joins Delphi-Mobileye self-driving collaboration

Intel is buying into the world of self-driving cars in a big way. This week Intel joined Delphi and Mobileye in a partnership that would produce the sensor components and autonomous driving software, some of it embedded on Intel chips, that would let automakers create self-driving cars. The self-drive technology package would be turned over to automakers in 2019, with the expectation vehicles would go on sale a year or two later. Intel wants to be a bigger player in automotive, where 100 million cars are delivered worldwide each year.

Earlier in November Intel its venture fund announced it was investing $250 million in startups developing autonomous driving technologies. In July it announced an alliance with BMW and Mobileye to develop the ultimate self-driving machine by 2021.

This partnership points to an affordable turnkey package automakers could use that wouldn’t involve an excess of basic R&D by the automakers, just hundreds of thousands of miles of prototype testing on development mules, plus placing and adjusting all the sensors.

With Mobileye on board, the vehicles will lean more heavily on a suite of cameras, less on lidar – the costliest kind of sensor – plus radar. And while a Mobileye installation typically has eight cameras placed around the car, three facing forward with different fields of view, it uses monocular vision to locate objects and to calculate the distance, rather than a stereo camera system.

Delphi provides the overall integration, radar technology, lidar technology, autonomous driving software, and the clout to get in the doors at the world’s largest automakers. As a Tier One (the largest) supplier, Delphi integrates its own technology with those of smaller companies such as Mobileye. Delphi was part of General Motors until being spun out in 1999 and now is among the world’s dozen biggest automotive suppliers with $17 billion in revenue. The autonomous driving software comes from Ottomatika, a spinoff from Carnegie-Mellon purchased by Delphi.

According to the players, there will be two main processor units: the Mobileye EyeQ 4 and later the Mobileye EyeQ 5 software on a chip fabricated by STMicroelectronics. Intel will provided added processing power with Core i7 processors initially, followed later by a different Intel CPU, possibly the A3900 (The performance difference between a Core i7 and an Atom-derived A3900 is large enough to make us curious about this aspect of the planEd). In combination they’ll provide 20 trillion operations per second of compute power at first. That will double or triple by the time the first self-driving car ships.

Automakers would get working development kits in calendar not model year 2019. They would use the next two years, 2017 and 2018, to begin designing where the multiple sensors are located and discussing the integration of other modules. If a self-drive package is to be on model year 2021 cars, the first of which ship summer/fall 2020, there’s only a year to 18 months to make all the parts mesh. For automakers who spend four to seven years developing a new model, this is R&D at warp speed.

Testing by Delphi is under way already in Singapore. Next year, testing sites will be added in the US and Europe.

Intel has plenty of competition as a supplier of compute-power, at least in the automotive sector. Nvidia’s Drive PX2 (Autocruise and Autochauffeur systems) delivers 24 trillion operations per second; it has shown a more powerful follow-on, Xavier. There is also competition from Qualcomm and NXP Semiconductor.

To gear up for a new run at the automotive sector, Intel is beefing up its Internet of Things (IoT) group. It hired Tom Lantzsch to be senior VP and GM of the IoT group; he had been at ARM for a decade. It created an Automated Driving Group (ADG) to be managed by Intel veteran Doug David and hired Delphi veteran Kathy Winter to be VP and GM of the Automated Solutions Division.

Mobileye had been the supplier of camera sensors for Tesla. The two had a falling out after the May death of a possibly inattentive driver whose Model S, running on Autpilot, broadsided and undercut the trailer of a tractor trailer that was turning in front of him. Mobileye felt Tesla put too much blame on its vision system and privately has said Tesla was being overly aggressive in letting AutoPilot operate for extended periods without the driver’s hands on the wheel. The two cut their ties soon after the accident.

The Delphi agreement, along with the BMW-Intel-Mobileye deal in July, shows much of the industry has faith in Mobileye and Mobileye’s belief it can make cars safely self-drive without having to capture and parse huge images.

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