The BMW Group, Intel and Mobileye have announced that they are joining forces to bring fleets of fully self-driving vehicles to the streets by 2021. But while the BMW-Mobileye connection has been known to industry observers, Intel was a surprise element in the three-way deal.

It’s not all that clear if the BMW-Mobileye-Intel agreement extends to plans of “Intel inside” the autonomous vehicle. Even if it does, analysts are skeptical that Mobileye–known as a jealous defender of its algorithms–would gladly share with anyone, let alone Intel.

Nonetheless, in a climate where autonomous car RFQs are flying around and no car company CEOs can avoid talking about driverless vehicles in quarterly financial calls, it’s not surprising to see technology suppliers rushing into the spotlight.

Accelerate autonomous car development

Following the announcement of the three-way deal, EE Times asked automotive industry analysts a few questions: 1) Is it time for Mobileye’s competitors—NXP, Nvidia, Qualcomm et al—to start freaking out? 2) Are Mobileye’s current partners—such as Volkswagen Group, General Motors, Nissan, Tesla Motors—likely to revolt? 3) Or, should everyone just chill and take this new development in stride?

Egil Juliussen, director research, Infotainment & ADAS at IHS Automotive, elicited the latter opinion.

He told EE Times, “It makes a lot of sense. Autonomous cars are very difficult to do. You need so many different technologies–deep learning, sensor fusion and others–to replace a human driver in a car.”

On a higher level, he concluded, “The joint effort like this will move things forward and faster.”

BMW, Intel and Mobileye hope to establish a big lead in the nascent self-driving car segment. Many other automakers are also racing to get there, but in reality, smaller companies probably don’t have deep enough pockets to pull it off.

Google factor

Then, “there is a Google factor,” Juliussen added. The automotive industry can’t afford to ignore Google, whose self-driving cars are viewed as “far ahead in some areas,” he noted.

Although Mobileye’s competitors may be concerned about the BMW/Mobileye/Intel alliance, autonomous cars are “still in a pre-competitive stage,” stressed Juliussen.

He pointed out, “Think about complexities that will come with standards for testing and verifying autonomous cars.” Individual technology suppliers should benefit from an autonomous car platform, he pointed out, so that they can avoid duplication in their development efforts.

Consider the GENIVI Alliance, a non-profit automotive industry alliance, Juliussen added. The industry group–originally started by Intel, BMW, GM and many more–has succeeded with its public open-source software project. “Carmakers [and chip vendors] can still compete on implementation levels.”

Whether the newly announced BMW/Mobileye/Intel deal will become the one to define an autonomous car platform is a tougher question.

Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive, pointed out that he’s aware of at least two other companies talking of the central computing architecture for the autonomous car. One is called zFAS, on which Audi has worked with Delphi (integrating chips from Nvidia and Mobileye). Mercedes-Benz has been working with a Tier One company on a different autonomous car platform, he added.

Intel’s Xeon Phi chip

Carlson said he’s surprised to see Intel in the three-company deal.

Of course, we may be looking at a platform as simple as Intel’s CPU as the ‘computer’ in an autonomous car, working in conjunction with Mobileye’s processor, as Carlson explained. “But we don’t know.” There isn’t just enough information to confirm or deny that.

A joint press release never spelled out Intel’s specific role. It vaguely mentions that Intel “brings a comprehensive portfolio of technology to power and connect billions of smart and connected devices, including cars.”

A more convincing theory is that Intel will play a big role in the infrastructure side, rather than inside autonomous cars.

Luca De Ambroggi, principal analyst, automotive semiconductor at IHS Technology, suspects, “Intel might provide and take care of the connectivity/telematics link, as well as connect the vehicle to the ‘cloud,’ and the rest of the IoT to store and elaborate data, whether maps or data point & pattern for AI applications.” In his view, Intel is there to leverage its “infrastructure knowhow.”

More specifically, De Ambroggi is referring to Kinghts Landing version of Xeon Phi processors Intel recently announced at the International Supercomputing Conference in Frankfurt, Germany.

The Xeon Phi chip comes with 72 cores running at 1.5GHz, alongside 16GB of integrated stack memory. It has been already designed into several supercomputers.

Intel has been relatively quiet on the topic of Deep Learning thus far. But the company is clearly hoping that the new Xeon Phi will finally open the door to compete in the fast-growing market, which has been so far dominated by Nvidia. To make that point, Intel shared that 4 new Phi processors completed the training of the Caffe Alexnet imaging neural network with 1.33 billion images in 10.5 hours, compared with four Maxwell GPUs that they pegged at 25 hours (see below).

auto 01 Figure 1: How Intel is positioning its Knights Landing version of Xeon Phi processors for deep learning (Source: Intel)

Mike Demler, senior analyst at The Linley Group, agreed. Under the new partnership, “I think the bigger role that Intel envisions is for development systems (like Nvidia’s Digits workstations) and in the data centre,” Demler noted. “Mobileye carefully worded the sentence in the press release, saying algorithms will be deployed on EyeQ processors, but algorithms will be collaboratively developed on Intel platforms.”

Demler also added that Mobileye’s Road Experience Management (REM) “requires a real-time connection to the cloud, so Intel hopes to play there.”

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