If you go to a Best Buy and buy a high-end smartphone, you’re likely getting the most cutting-edge hardware and software the mobile industry has to offer. But if you were to go to your local car dealership and buy the newest model luxury vehicle, chances are the infotainment and connectivity technologies embedded within are already several years old.
Welcome to the curse of the automotive industry. The lead time on new car designs and manufacturing schedules means the technology you’re buying today was developed years earlier. What’s more, that technology effectively becomes locked down in your vehicle. As soon as your drive off the lot, the connected car system you have is the one you’re stuck with for years. (For more details on connected car technology, check out our infographic [http://gigaom.com/2013/02/06/the-connected-car-of-the-future-infographic/].)
Mobile-processor maker Nvidia, however, is proposing a solution to that problem: Why not make an upgradable connected car system. We “upgrade” our smartphones and tablets every year or two by buying completely new devices, but that’s not really an option for an automobile.
With processors based on its Tegra designs, however, Nvidia wants to empower automakers to build cars that not only have top-of-the-line computing components when they roll off the lot, but also can be upgraded periodically during their long lives.
In short, Nvidia wants to help automakers make connected cars that never become obsolete.
According to Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s director of automotive, the company designed its automotive processors, called visual computing modules, around a flexible framework that allows automakers to work future processor technology into what are typically three-year development cycles. Rather than design a connected car system years away from production using today’s chips, engineers can design tomorrow’s cars using tomorrow’s chips, Shapiro says.
That program is already seeing some pretty significant results, he says. Within a month of shipping in Google’s flagship tablet, the Nexus 7, the Tegra 3 made its debut in the Tesla Model S, powering its impressive infotainment system (along with a separate Tegra 2 processor to handle the instrument cluster).
That solves the first problem—making an infotainment system that’s not obsolete before it hits the showroom floor. Solving the next problem—making a connected car system that keeps up with the pace of consumer electronics innovation—is much trickier.
To tackle it, Nvidia recently launched a new automotive architecture called Jetson, which tries to solve more than just the problem of obsolescence. First, Jetson is powerful, incorporating Nvidia’s pixel-crunching graphics-processing units alongside its Tegra VCM chips. Nvidia is hoping its silicon won’t just be the brains of your infotainment system but an extra set of eyes on the road.
Nvidia wants to power the advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) emerging in the next generation of cars, Shapiro says. Moving beyond adaptive cruise control and proximity detection, cars will eventually sport omnidirectional cameras that will “see” the road in all directions and possibly even scanning lasers that can model a vehicle’s surroundings in 3D. The art of processing image and spatial data just happens to be Nvidia’s sweet spot.
In addition, Nvidia has crafted Jetson to be a development platform that builds on its earlier work with its VCM chips. “Automakers can simulate future designs,” says Shapiro. “They can get their development done now, preparing for next-generation chips and next-generation car apps.”
Finally, Jetson is modular. The core processing unit is designed to be swappable. That means an automaker can easily incorporate the latest and greatest version of Jetson into its existing connected car and infotainment systems each successive year. It also means, Shapiro says, that one day we could upgrade our car’s dashboard computers much like we’d upgrade an old PC.
Unless you’re one of those folks who can afford to buy a new car every time the ashtrays get full, chances are any new vehicle purchase is going to be a long-term investment. Six years is not an unreasonable time to spend driving the same car, but that’s an eternity in the world of consumer electronics. Six years ago, what we now think of as a smartphone didn’t exist, and no one had yet developed many technologies we now take for granted, such as speech-powered virtual assistants, 3D mapping, and location-based social networks.
Many automakers have decided that trying to keeping up with the day-to-day advances of technology is an exercise in futility and have built their connected car strategies around the smartphone itself. Ford and Chevy, for instance have designed their connected infotainment systems as extensions of the driver’s handset. So as the smartphone becomes more powerful, so do their cars’ dashboards.
An upgradable CPU would solve part of that problem but not the whole problem. It doesn’t matter if your new car dash computer can process hi-rez images in real time if it doesn’t have the sensors to collect those images.
But the auto industry is trying to solve that problem as well. Ford has launched an open-source hardware program called OpenXC, which could let us upgrade components such as heads-up displays and sensor arrays in our future cars.
I’m not saying you’ll be able to turn your old jalopy into KITT from Knight Rider, but who knows? One day maybe we could customize our cars so they behave like new even if they don’t look like new.
Also from GigaOM:
What Do Consumers Want Out of a Connected Car? (subscription required)