How Nvidia’s ‘brains’ are dominating the self-driving race


As Google, Uber and Tesla fight for control of the self-driving car market, another company better known for its gaming chips than its wheels is positioned to cash-in on the transportation revolution.

Nvidia has quietly become one of the top suppliers of the “brains” that control self-driving cars – the super computers that sit nestled inside the trunk or perhaps tucked behind the glove compartment and interpret visual cues like red lights and pedestrians, telling the vehicle how to respond. The Santa Clara-based chipmaker has racked up deals with big carmakers including Tesla, Audi, Mercedes, Toyota and Volvo and is poised to power a large portion of the burgeoning self-driving car industry, a market that is expected to hit US$77bil (RM330.52bil) by 2035.

“Nvidia is obviously going to be one of the strongest players in this area,” said Gartner research director Mike Ramsey.

Danny Shapiro, senior director, holding the company’s Nvidia Drive PX2 processor at Nvidia in Santa Clara, California. — Bay Area News Group/TNS

And by taking on self-driving cars, Nvidia is pulling off a key move from the Silicon Valley playbook. Expanding into new industries – think Google trying its hand at everything from drones to high-speed internet – is vital for any large company hoping to stay relevant in a world where innovative technology can quickly become obsolete, Ramsey said. Diversifying can be tricky, as proven by Yahoo’s unsuccessful attempt to expand into media. But if it works, it can act as insurance against future upsets.

“You never know when someone is going to come along in your core industry and kick your butt,” Ramsey said. “You’re not guaranteed to be at the top.”

While fully autonomous cars are still several years away, Nvidia’s newfound dominance in self-driving cars and early expertise in artificial intelligence is paying off. Its stock price tripled over the past 12 months, and it was the best performing company in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index last year – largely because investors see a coming windfall in AI and self-driving tech, experts say. Those up-and-coming sectors already helped boost Nvidia’s revenue last quarter nearly 50% from the year before.

“We’re at the very beginning of the AI revolution,” Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s senior director of automotive work, said during a recent interview. “We’re fuelling that revolution, and we’re extremely optimistic about where it’s going to take us.”

Founded in 1993, Nvidia became known for building powerful graphics processors (GPUs) used for rendering stunning videogame visuals. About five years ago, Nvidia realised its GPUs also could be used for artificial intelligence – a major turning point for the company just as AI was becoming the hottest commodity in Silicon Valley. Big names including Google, Facebook, Shazam and Netflix started using Nvidia’s chips, running applications such as the facial recognition software that identifies people in Facebook photos.

Nvidia soon expanded into self-driving cars. In 2015, the company revealed the Nvidia Drive PX – the world’s first in-car super computer. Last year Nvidia unveiled the Drive PX 2, which is about the size of a license plate and boasts the power of 150 MacBook Pros.

“That has now snowballed into them being basically the leader for autonomous driving hardware for the auto industry,” said Egil Juliussen, director of research and principal analyst for automotive technology at IHS Markit.

But Nvidia isn’t alone in the race to dominate the market. Intel, so far Nvidia’s biggest competitor in self-driving cars, plans to have autonomous BMWs powered by Intel processors in production by 2021. Intel bought Mobileye, a leader in computer vision and mapping technology for self-driving cars, for US$15.3bil (RM65.67bil) in March, giving the chipmaker a major step up in the autonomous vehicle game. Nvidia also may have to contend with competition from other chip companies like Qualcomm, or even Google and Apple, which reportedly also are making their own chips that could end up in self-driving cars.

Nvidia faces another risk, Ramsey said. Though many companies today are using Nvidia’s high-powered processors to develop self-driving software, once they perfect that software, they may decide they can run it with an Nvidia competitor’s less expensive chip, he said.

Nvidia already has more than 80 automakers, software firms, transportation network providers and other companies using its chips to develop self-driving car technology, and last month Nvidia added Volvo as one of its newest partners. Together Nvidia and Volvo, which this month said it will put electric motors in all its cars within two years, hope to build autonomous vehicles that will be ready for sale by 2021, Nvidia said in a news release.

NuTonomy, the Massachusetts-based self-driving software startup that teamed up with Lyft last month, also uses Nvidia chips. The startup is considering using Nvidia’s processor in the autonomous Lyft cars that are expected to hit the road in Boston soon, said NuTonomy co-founder and CEO Karl Iagnemma.

Meanwhile, Nvidia is growing at warp speed. The company’s market cap skyrocketed 232% last year over the year before, and it landed as No. 18 on the SV150, The Mercury News’ annual ranking of Silicon Valley public companies by revenue. Nvidia is building a new Santa Clara campus to handle its expansion, and plans to move 3,000 people in by the end of the year.

Last quarter, Nvidia pulled in US$409mil (RM1.75bil) in revenue from companies using its processors in their datacentres, mostly for artificial intelligence. That’s a 186% increase from the year before – growth which impressed ARK Invest analyst James Wang.

“I cover the whole Internet space, and there’s nothing that behaves like that,” he said. “That’s just an incredible amount of growth, and that shock and awe factor definitely helped lift Nvidia’s stock.”

Meanwhile, revenue from Nvidia’s sales in the automotive industry, from self-driving and in-car entertainment technology, climbed 24%. For now, sales in AI and auto tech account for just a fraction of Nvidia’s total revenue – 21% and 7%, respectively – while gaming still brings in slightly more than half. But experts say that balance may shift as the markets for AI and self-driving cars develop.

“Artificial intelligence,” said Ramsey, “of which self-driving cars are a part, is totally their future.”