Qualcomm Takes On Nvidia for Nex-Gen ADAS/AV Systems

Article By : Colin Barnden

Join me on a journey around the world, from San Diego to Stockholm and Canberra, in which we dissect another looming battle of the tech giants as Qualcomm prepares to take Nvidia for a ride...

Didn’t Qualcomm get the memo? All cars will be self-driving in a couple of years and the winner is Nvidia. Not likely, they said at Qualcomm headquarters in San Diego. So, join me on a journey around the world, taking in west and east coast U.S., Scandinavia and the Australian Capital Territory, in which we dissect another looming battle of the tech giants as Qualcomm prepares to take Nvidia for a ride.

Our journey begins in Cupertino, with some words so wise that I am going to name them Steve’s Law, after Steve Jobs who observed that “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

The blending of the automotive and tech industries offers only two outcomes for customer experience: Either the human is legally liable for the driving task, or the machine driver is. That’s the sum total of this debate, although a lot of companies want to make it way more complicated than that.

I don’t know if it is delusion or denial – or even post-traumatic stress disorder – that has left vast swathes of highly intelligent people incapable of accepting the reality before them, but privately-owned passenger vehicles are not going to be driving themselves anytime soon.

Robotaxis and fixed-route AVs? No problem. Investors can burn their money if they so choose and the mythical “robotaxi providers and fleet operators” can load up on all the financial and liability risk they like. This is the nature of capitalism. But going to a dealership and buying a “self-driving” car that can take you to coast-to-coast? That is many years, and possibly many decades, from reality.

As the Qualcomm-Veoneer partnership shows, the coming together of the automotive and tech industries is following a dramatically different path than many thought likely even two years ago, creating new opportunities for those with a turnkey solution to meet the automakers’ needs and fulfill the forthcoming regulatory changes.

The road less traveled
Automotive market developments now point very much towards driver-assist (ADAS) technologies and to making human drivers into safer drivers, as opposed to autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. The speed with which the automotive industry has altered course has completely wrong-footed Intel’s Mobileye and Nvidia, that have spent much of the last couple of years in a somewhat undignified battle arguing over chip specifications and technology leadership.

The pace of development in the tech industry is so great that disruptors can themselves be disrupted. Leading suppliers which carelessly miss significant technology pivots face oblivion. Witness Motorola missing digital cellular; Nokia missing smartphones; Kodak missing digital cameras; Blockbuster missing video streaming. I’ve witnessed countless examples in my time as an analyst and automotive development, while somewhat slower paced, is not immune to these technological changes.

So, whether by luck or by judgment the dramatic pivot away from AV to ADAS has created an opportunity which Qualcomm looks perfectly placed to benefit from. Qualcomm’s intentions to enter the ADAS/AV processor market have been apparent for several years but it was generally regarded as an “also-ran” compared with Mobileye and Nvidia.

From San Diego, our journey continues on to Stockholm, Sweden, and to the worldwide headquarters of Veoneer. This might not be a company all that familiar to some readers of EE Times, since it was formed only in June 2018 as a spin-off of the electronics segment of Autoliv. Veoneer has a focus on sensors, electronics and software for safety systems.

While the mainstream media was focused on technology announcements from Mobileye and Nvidia, Tesla Autopilot and “self-driving” demonstrations from Waymo and Cruise, Veoneer was practically ignored as it got on with developing the software and sensor suite for the industry’s first production-ready example of what Toyota calls a “Guardian” system.

Once finalized, the Qualcomm-Veoneer partnership looks set to become Qualcomm marketing its Snapdragon processors and Veoneer’s Guardian-type software head-to-head with Mobileye EyeQ and Nvidia Drive. In a story entitled Veoneer Jilts Nvidia, Weds Qualcomm on ADAS/AV, Junko Yoshida asked “But what would it take for the two companies [Qualcomm and Veoneer] to convince Tier Ones or OEMs to go with them instead of Mobileye?

What a great question, so grab your popcorn and pull up a chaise longue. Let’s review how the industry pivot from AV to ADAS has exposed the technology missed by Mobileye and Nvidia, and why the Qualcomm-Veoneer partnership is a much bigger deal than it might appear.

Driver monitoring and human factors
If cars aren’t going to drive themselves then vision-based driver monitoring systems (DMS) becomes the primary safety technology, to monitor for distraction, drowsiness and impairment in the human driver. ADAS is then the secondary safety technology, to warn, assist or intervene. Mobileye and Nvidia bet big on AI and automated driving development, but they are both nowhere in DMS technology leadership.

In contrast Veoneer adopted a strategy which it calls “Collaborative Driving” that is different from practically everyone else in the industry. The concept is to make human drivers into safer drivers, and Veoneer has started with the customer experience and worked backwards to the technology entirely through the lens of human factors science. We can see more in the video below.

How did Veoneer have the foresight to embrace human factors science to develop collaborative driving? A glance at their Board of Directors reveals Mary Louise “Missy” Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University and taking our global journey to Durham, North Carolina.

I don’t know the sequence of events leading up to Missy Cummings joining the Veoneer Board, nor how the decision to dump Nvidia and jump to Qualcomm came about, but both are inspired and I’m giving the credit to Veoneer’s CEO Jan Carlson until someone tells me otherwise.

Our journey concludes in Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory and headquarters of driver monitoring specialist Seeing Machines, the company behind the DMS software in Cadillac Super Cruise. Autoliv and Seeing Machines started working together in August 2017 with Qualcomm and Seeing Machines partnering at the start of this year.

It follows therefore that the DMS provider indicated in the slide below is Seeing Machines. Having just announced its next generation automotive DMS strategy it will probably be taking calls from Mobileye and Nvidia over the next couple of weeks.

Click the image to enlarge. (Source: Veoneer)

Our journey has taken us all around the world, including Cupertino, San Diego, Stockholm, Duke University and Canberra as we reviewed the Qualcomm-Veoneer announcement. We can look forward to a thrilling ride ahead as Qualcomm prepares to take on Mobileye and Nvidia for the next generation of driver-assist systems using a truly global solution.

NXP, Renesas, Texas Instruments, Toshiba and Xilinx will almost certainly play key roles too, as the semiconductor industry begins to understand much more about how ADAS, driver monitoring and human factors science come together to make human drivers into safer drivers. It will be fascinating to watch. I might even order a new chaise longue.

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