It’s been two years since Elon Musk said that Tesla would develop its own chips to facilitate autonomous driving and began hiring a team of designers and executives to make it happen. This week Musk went public with the results. Tesla has developed its own silicon for running the neural networks it uses to do vision processing in its AutoPilot software. The company is building it into a computer that’s a plug-in replacement for the Nvidia Drive PX2 systems it currently uses for AutoPilot 2.5-equipped cars.
Musk touts Tesla’s homegrown processor as being 10 times faster than what they can buy from Nvidia or anyone else today, stating the chip can analyze up to 2,000 frames of video per second instead of the current 200. Industry insiders I’ve spoken with concur that this type of performance improvement over the current PX2 performance is needed to achieve Level 4 or Level 5 autonomous driving. So far, so good. However, Nvidia is already shipping samples of a new car computer, Drive Xavier, that is an order of magnitude faster than the PX2. It is built around Nvidia’s new, and AI-targeted, Volta architecture that features Tensor Cores rather than the much older and more general purpose Pascal chips used in the PX2.
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However, Nvidia says Xavier is the culmination of four years of work by 2,000 engineers and an investment of $2 billion — a complexity attested to by its 9 billion transistors. My speculation is that power usage and economics are bigger drivers of Tesla’s decision than pure performance. It is certainly reasonable that by building a chip and computer that only does exactly what it needs, Tesla can lower the power required — not a huge amount by server farm standards, but always a consideration in electric vehicles.
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Economically, Tesla has two cost issues. First is the cost of computers for all its vehicles going forward, but it is also likely to need to retrofit — perhaps free of charge — existing cars with new computers. Musk has previously promised that recent cars equipped with AutoPilot would eventually be able to achieve full autonomous driving capability. That will almost certainly require a new computer, and customers who view it is a promise made by Tesla will be reluctant to pay for it. So by building his own computer, Musk can realize substantial cost savings.
Nvidia doesn’t say what a PX2 costs, but it is speculated that early partners using it for autonomous vehicle testing paid up to $15K per unit. Even if the volume version is much less expensive, say around $2K, retrofitting a couple hundred thousand cars with it would come with a price tag approaching a billion dollars. That number will continue to go up until Tesla can ship its new computer, which Tesla doesn’t expect to happen until next year.
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