Sixteen years ago Transmeta, a small low power chip, forced Intel to rebuild its desktop PC processors to fulfill the demands of notebooks. Now, Intel is changing its PC processors to an entirely new market: self-driving cars.
Intel has aligned with Mobileye—the inventors of Tesla Motors’ autopilot system—and Delphi an auto parts maker, according to many reports. Intel has planned to put a Core i7 inside self-driving cars as the central controller, apparently, together with the Mobileye EyeQ chips, according to The New York Times. Afterward, Intel will use a “more powerful and unnamed processor to be unveiled in a few weeks”—maybe at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.
Intel has announced a $250 million deal with self-driving cars earlier this month, as part of a promise to “make fully autonomous driving a reality,” according to a statement by chief executive Brian Krzanich. Intel and Mobileye will work together with BMW to help get a self-driving car working on the road by 2021. Lastly, Intel established a driving group within the company, headed up by its IoT chief, Doug Davis.
Intel is chasing a growing market for its chips. At present it is a small market: About 250 million or so “PCs are likely to be sold this year, while it has taken many years for 240 million cars to accumulate on U.S. roads.” Most of these cars lack the latest high-tech features, however, and none at present is self-driving. Intel aims to be inside the future cars that will replace the installed base, and then some. By 2035, it has been estimated by the International Energy Agency that the total number of cars on the road, all over will be 1.7 billion.
The Nvidia’s Tegra chips new “Parker” version, promises to provide 4K entertainment to the driver of a self-driving car and the passengers. It is a potential competitor. According to the Times, Intel’s Core i7 wouldn’t arrive in cars for about two years. Those chips will be capable of about “20 trillion mathematical operations per second,” the Times report claims. A later version of that system will have two to three times the processing power, it said.
It’s not likely that Intel will simply take an existing Core i7 and place it into a PC-style motherboard inside a car, however. Not only will there be issues of space, but microprocessors and micro-controllers inside the car are typically made with temperature extremes in mind—typically -40 degrees to 302 degrees Fahrenheit. A 14nm Core i7 6785-R has a thermal case limit of only 160 degrees Fahrenheit—the same as Intel’s embedded Core i7 chips, incidentally.
Intel hasn’t specifically mentioned a competitor that motivated it for its self-driving car investment. Nvidia which designs standalone GPUs that are a competitor to Intel’s integrated chips has made a serious effort for about two years to make its embedded Tegra lines the mind of connected cars as part of its Drive PX system. Nvidia’s Tegra is Intel’s Core for PCs, and its new Parker chip, revealed this August, delivers 4K entertainment to cars as well as serves to recognize cars, signs, pedestrians and other hindrances.