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The Brains of Future Self-Driving Cars in China

A Review of the Domestic Self-driving Chip Industry

As companies around the world race to develop full self-driving cars, the onboard chip that runs complex neural networks is critical to the safety and performance of the vehicle. Given the long qualification and product cycle of the auto industry, semiconductor companies are competing to enter the supply chain with an aggressive product timeline. This article will review the current state of China’s self-driving chip industry in the context of global competition.

Self-driving Chip – What is it? Why is it Important?

Self-driving cars collect vast amounts of data through a suite of sensors. Vehicles need to process and run real-time inference on large Machine Learning (ML) models which require high-performance computing platform powered by a self-driving chip. Self-driving chips usually adopt a system on a chip (SoC) structure, where the central processing unit (CPU), graphics processing unit (GPU), neural processing unit (NPU), and image signal processors (ISP) are all integrated on one chip. Take Tesla’s Full Self-Driving (FSD) chip as an example – we can see three ARM-based CPUs (12 core) for general purpose processing, two NPUs to process neural networks, and a light GPU for post-processing.

Tesla FSD Chip
Horizon Robotics Journey 3

Chinese Companies with Competitive Product Roadmap

Global leaders in autonomous driving chips include Tesla, Nvidia, and Mobileye, with their chips already in production vehicles. Tesla FSD has the highest computing power amongst current production chips. On the other side of the supply chain, auto original equipment manufacturers (OEM) and startups work with multiple platforms, as products are likely to undergo rapid improvement over the next five years.

In China, Horizon Robotics and Black Sesame have a competitive product roadmap, working with OEM and autonomous driving startups. The current generation of chips can deliver around 20-70 TOPS (trillions of operations per second), but within the next three to five years, companies are planning to deliver products with 100-1000 TOPS. (Mirae Asset 2021) However, computing power is not the only measurement of success in self-driving chips, as having strong software support and a development ecosystem is just as equally important.

Horizon Robotics already has chips on production vehicles. Timing is critical for chip design startups to qualify their products and build development experience around their platform. It will be difficult for new players to enter the market once auto OEM and autonomous driving startups build up mature software around selective chip suppliers.

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