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Nvidia says its new supercomputer will enable the highest level of automated driving

Nvidia says its new supercomputer will enable the highest level of automated driving


No steering wheels, no pedals, no mirrors

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Latest Consumer Technology Products On Display At CES 2017
Nvidia Founder, President and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang delivers a keynote address at CES 2017.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Nvidia, one of the world’s best known manufacturers of computer graphics cards, announced a new, more powerful computing platform for use in autonomous vehicles. The company claims its new system, codenamed Pegasus, can be used to power Level 5, fully driverless cars without steering wheels, pedals, or mirrors.

The new iteration of the GPU maker’s Drive PX platform will deliver over 320 trillion operations per second, which amounts to more than 10 times its predecessor’s processing power. Pegasus will be marketed to the hundreds of automakers and tech companies that are currently developing self-driving cars starting the second half of 2018, the company says.

Nvidia’s promise of Level 5 autonomy shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Nvidia’s promise of Level 5 autonomy shouldn’t be taken lightly. Most automakers and tech companies speak carefully about the levels of autonomy, avoiding claims on which they may not ultimately be able to deliver. Nothing on the road today that’s commercially available is higher than a Level 2. Audi says its new A8 sedan is Level 3 autonomous — but we have to take the company’s word for it because present regulations won’t allow the German automaker to turn it on. Most car companies have said they will probably skip Level 3 and 4 because it’s too dangerous, and go right to Level 5. So for Nvidia to state definitively it can deliver the highest level of autonomous driving starting next year is pretty staggering — and maybe a little bit reckless.

Presently, self-driving cars that don’t require any human intervention are only theoretical. This vision of the future, where the vehicle can handle every task in all possible conditions, is the one that is most appealing to futurists and tech evangelists. But it will take years, if not decades, before our roads and rules catch up to robotic cars that can roam freely without limitations.

Nvidia’s Drive PX Pegasus computing platform
Nvidia’s Drive PX Pegasus computing platform

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Nvidia’s executives acknowledged that these driverless cars with their Level 5-empowering GPUs will most likely first be deployed in a ride-hailing capacity in limited settings, like college campuses or airports. But as soon as their life-saving potential is realized, they expect them to be rolled out onto more public roads. “These vehicles are going to save a lot of lives,” said Danny Shapiro, senior director of automated driving at Nvidia.

“These vehicles are going to save a lot of lives.”

The type of computers produced by Nvidia and its competitors like Intel are arguably the most important part of the driverless car. Everything the vehicle “sees” with its sensors, all of the images, mapping data, and audio material picked up by its cameras, needs to be processed by giant PCs in order for the vehicle to make split-second decisions. All this processing must be done with multiple levels of redundancy to ensure the highest level of safety. This is why so many self-driving operators prefer SUVs, minivans, and other large wheelbase vehicles: autonomous cars need enormous space in the trunk for their big “brains.”

The trunk of a self-driving Ford Fusion
The trunk of a self-driving Ford Fusion
Sam Abuelsamid

But Nvidia claims to have shrunk down its GPU, making it an easier fit for production vehicles. Pegasus contains an amount of power equivalent to “a 100-server data center in the form-factor size of a license plate,” Shapiro said.

Nvidia began working on autonomous vehicles several years ago and has racked up partnerships with dozens of automakers and suppliers racing to develop self-driving cars, including Chinese search engine giant Baidu, Toyota, Audi, Tesla, and Volvo.

“A 100-server data center in form-factor size of a license plate”

Nvidia’s original architecture for self-driving cars, introduced in 2015, is a supercomputer platform called Drive PX that can process all of the data coming from the vehicle’s cameras and sensors. The platform then uses an AI algorithm-based operating system and a cloud-based, high-definition 3D map to help the car understand its environment, know its location, and anticipate potential hazards while driving. The system’s software can be updated over the air — similar to how a smartphone’s operating system is updated — making the car become smarter over time.

A more powerful next-generation computer called Drive PX 2 — along with a suite of software tools and libraries aimed at speeding up the deployment of self-driving vehicles — followed in 2016. Nvidia has continued to push its tech further with the introduction last year of Xavier, a complete system-on-a-chip processor that is essentially an AI brain for self-driving cars. And Pegasus is the equivalent of two Xavier units, plus two next-generation discrete GPUs, Nvidia says. The new system was introduced at a GPU conference in Munich, Germany on Tuesday.

Nvidia also made two additional announcements at the conference: that it was partnering with Deutsche Post DHL Group and auto supplier ZF to deploy fully autonomous delivery trucks by 2019; and that it was offering early access to its virtual “Holodeck” technology to select designers and developers. (The Verge’s Adi Robertson wrote recently about the unlimited number of VR projects using “holodeck” terminology.)