Nvidia aims to jump from games to self-driving cars

In-car digital systems are increasingly being advanced. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
In-car digital systems are increasingly being advanced. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Detroit - It took Silicon Valley chipmaker Nvidia the better part of a decade to gain acceptance as a global automotive supplier, a lesson for other technology firms hoping to make a similar transition from consumer electronics to car components.

Nvidia had a thriving business in supplying powerful graphics processors for video game consoles and laptop computers when representatives of Volkswagen AG asked if it could adapt the same realistic, three-dimensional displays for the dashboards of Audi luxury cars.

That was 10 years ago - several lifetimes in Silicon Valley terms, but just a couple of model changes ago for the big car maker. It took six years for Nvidia to develop the chips to power the 3D navigation system display that launched on the 2011 Audi A8, the brand's top-of-the-line sedan, compared with three to four years to develop a new chip for gaming applications.

Along the way, Nvidia engineers learned the hard way they could not just pop a chip designed for a laptop or a game console into a car.

"We had to be taught what 'automotive grade' meant," said Danny Shapiro, Nvidia's senior director of automotive operations. In simple terms, that meant no reboots - because a dashboard screen that fails to light up means an angry customer and possibly an expensive warranty repair.

Technological edge

The decade-long effort enabled Nvidia to make the jump from the world of computers and game consoles into the fast-growing market for advanced automotive displays and automated driving systems. It is a leap that other Silicon Valley tech companies want to emulate to cash in on the convergence of automobiles and digital connectivity.

Nvidia's success in landing processors on cars including the Audi A8 and the Tesla Model S sedan illustrates the growing willingness among automakers to look beyond their traditional suppliers to obtain a technological edge.

"They offer us computing systems with the strength" to process vast amounts of data required by new driver assistance systems and displays, said Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi's head of technical development.

Nvidia is still a niche player with a long way to go to crack the top league of traditional automotive chip suppliers. Much larger companies, including Japan's Renesas Electronics and US chipmakers Texas Instruments, Intel and Qualcomm, dominate the automotive chip business.

Nvidia's automotive sales represented just 4% of the company's $4.7bn annual revenue in its most recent fiscal year. That in turn is just one-tenth of the $1.86bn in automotive semiconductors that Texas Instruments sold in 2014.

Huge computing power

The company is pushing to crack the emerging market for driver assistance systems, which include such tasks as self-parking and semi-automated steering and braking.

Those systems require huge amounts of computing power in very small packages. Nvidia has developed and begun selling a chip called the Tegra X1 for automotive and gaming uses, which it says can put the power of a supercomputer in a package about the size of a postage stamp.

"Nvidia brings unparalleled graphics capabilities that could prove critical building blocks" for driver assistance systems, said Morgan Stanley analyst Joseph Moore.

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