By Eric Auchard
LONDON (Reuters) - Silicon Valley graphics chipmaker NVIDIA unveiled on Tuesday the first computer chips for developing fully autonomous vehicles and said it had more than 25 customers working to build a new class of driverless cars, robotaxis and long-haul trucks.
Deutsche Post DHL Group, the world's largest mail and logistics company, and ZF, a top automotive parts supplier, plan to deploy a fleet of autonomous delivery trucks based on the new chips, starting in 2019, NVIDIA said.
The third generation of NVIDIA's Drive PX automotive line, code-named Pegasus, is a multi-chip platform the size of car licence plates with datacenter-class processing power.
Pegasus can handle 320 trillion operations per second, representing roughly a 13-fold increase over the calculating power of the current PX 2 line.
A single NVIDIA Xavier-class processor can be used for level 3 semi-autonomous driving, while a combination of multiple mobile and graphics processors would run level 5 full-scale driverless cars, the company said.
A level 5 vehicle is capable of navigating roads without any driver input and in its purest form would have no steering wheel or brakes. A level 3 car still needs a steering wheel and a driver who can take over if the car encounters a problem, while level 4 promises driverless features in dedicated lanes.
This dramatic improvement is a pre-condition for developing and testing future autonomous cars, experts said.
Shares of Nvidia were indicated 3.8 percent higher in pre-market U.S. trading at $192.37. The high-flying stock has gained 80 percent this year.
"NVIDIA is one step ahead. But you can be sure you can expect (rival chipmakers) Intel, NXP and Renesas not to be too far behind," said Luca De Ambroggi, principal automotive electronics analyst with industry market research firm IHS Markit.
U.S. computer chip giant Intel and its Mobileye automotive unit are working with German carmaker BMW and U.S. auto supplier Delphi on their own autonomous driving platform due out in 2021.
NXP has agreed to be acquired by Qualcomm to form the world's largest auto electronics supplier. Japanese chipmaker Renesas is a has a strong presence in microcontrollers used to run key car functions.
NVIDIA's automotive director Danny Shapiro said in an interview that many of the first 25 customers using the Pegasus platform would focus on robotaxis, which will be built without steering wheels or brakes and used only on dedicated routes. Bigger name automakers will announce vehicles running on Pegasus at their own product launches in coming months, he said.
MISSING PIECE IN DRIVERLESS PUZZLE
The Pegasus line will be available by the middle of 2018 for automakers to begin developing vehicles and testing software algorithms needed to control future driverless cars, NVIDIA executives told a developers' conference in Munich on Tuesday.
The deal between Deutsche Post, ZF and NVIDIA will include future Deutsche Post StreetScooter delivery trucks. In Munich, the three partners are showcasing a prototype StreetScooter running NVIDIA Drive PX chips used to control sensors including six cameras, one radar and one lidar, or 3D laser camera.
Initial use cases will be for logistics vehicles on private roads within freight centres or for long-haul trucking in dedicated lanes, Shapiro said: "They are not replacing the drivers, but making the drivers more efficient and safer".
For its current generation Drive PX2, NVIDIA has said it has 225 customers, including car and truck makers, Tier 1 auto suppliers, high-definition mapping companies, start-ups and research institutions. These customers can make use of PX2-class software when they upgrade to Pegasus chips, NVIDIA said.
These could encompass existing customers Tesla, including its latest Model 3. Others include Volkswagen's Audi A8, the first car to use Level 3 semi-autonomous driving features, Toyota Motor's next-generation autonomous cars and Geely's Volvo business.
De Ambroggi said NVIDIA's Pegasus automotive platform was the first with the processing power for automakers to begin developing truly autonomous vehicles, which could be upgraded with software improvements ahead of actual roadway deployments.
But the analyst stressed that while Pegasus could find its way into mass-produced robotaxis running in defined lanes, these early fully-autonomous chips would likely only allow carmakers to develop prototypes ready for the driverless era.
Regulations, road-testing, nagging safety concerns - and questions about how power-intensive the new data-hungry chip platform will be - are likely to mean truly driverless cars for personal use won't arrive until at least 2025, he said.
(Reporting by Eric Auchard; editing by Mark Potter and Jason Neely)