Mercedes and Nvidia Announce the Advent of the Software-Defined Car

The idea of tomorrow’s car as a computer on wheels is ripening apace. Today, Daimler and Nvidia announced that Daimler’s carmaking arm, Mercedes-Benz, will drop Nvidia’s newest computerized driving system into every car it sells, beginning in 2024.

The system, called the Drive AGX Orin, is a system-on-a-chip that was announced in December and is planned to ship in 2022. It’s an open system, but as adapted for Mercedes, it will be laden with specially designed software. The result, say the two companies, will be a software-defined car:  Customers will buy a car, then periodically download new features, among them some that were not known at the time of purchase. This capability will be enhanced by using software instead of dedicated hardware in the form of a constellation of electronic control units, or ECUs.

“In modern cars, there can be 100, up to 125, ECUs,” said Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s senior director of automotive. “Many of those will be replaced by software apps. That will change how different things function in the car—from windshield wipers to door locks to performance mode.”

The plan is to give cars a degree of self-driving competence comparable to Level 2  (where the car assists the driver) and Level 3 (where the driver can do other things as the car drives itself, while remaining ready to take back the wheel). The ability to park itself will be Level 4 (where there’s no need to mind the car at all, so long as it’s operating in a predefined comfort zone).

In all these matters, the Nvidia-Daimler partnership is following a trail that Tesla blazed and others have followed. Volkswagen plainly emulated Tesla in a project that is just now yielding its first fruit: an all-electric car that will employ a single master electronic architecture that will eventually power all of VW’s electric and self-driving cars. The rollout was slightly delayed because of glitches in software, as we reported last week

Asked whether Daimler would hire a horde of software experts, as Volkwagen is doing, and thus become something of a software company, Bernhard Wardin, spokesman for Daimler’s autonomous driving and artificial intelligence division, said he had no comment. (Sounds like a “yes.”) He added that though a car model had been selected for the debut of the new system, its name was still under wraps.

One thing that strikes the eye is the considerable muscle of the system. The AGX Orin has 17 billion transistors, incorporating what Nvidia says are new deep learning and computer vision accelerators that “deliver 200 trillion operations per second—nearly 7 times the performance of Nvidia’s previous generation Xavier SoC.” 

It’s interesting to note that the Xavier itself began to ship only last year, after being announced toward the end of 2016. On its first big publicity tour, at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, the Xavier was touted by Jen-Hsun Huang, the CEO of Nvidia. He spoke together with the head of Audi, which was going to use the Xavier in a “Level 4” car that was supposed to hit the road in three years. Yes, that would be now.

So, a chip 7 times more powerful, with far more advanced AI software, is now positioned to power a car with mere Level 2/3 capabilities—in 2024.

None of this is meant to single out Nvidia or Daimler for ridicule. It’s meant to ridicule the entire industry, both the tech people and the car people, who have been busy walking back expectations for self-driving for the past two years. And to ridicule us tech journalists, who have been backtracking right alongside them.

Cars that help the driver do the driving are here already. More help is on the way. Progress is real. But the future is still in the future: Robocar tech is harder than we thought.

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