Nvidia Unveils Supercomputer for Driverless Cars

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At a company conference in Munich Tuesday, Nvidia Corp. (NASDAQ: NVDA) founder and CEO Jensen Huang announced two new projects — one a virtual reality (VR) application for designers and the other an artificial intelligence (AI) computer for fully autonomous vehicles.

And Huang meant “fully” autonomous: no steering wheel, no pedals, no mirrors. This degree of autonomous driving is known in the industry as Level 5. Self-driving cars being tested now typically meet the specifications for Level 3 autonomy, which requires a driver who can intervene if required, but, unlike the lower levels, the driver is not required constantly to monitor the vehicle’s driving environment.

What Nvidia claims to have done is compress the computing hardware needed to achieve Level 5 autonomy from a trunkful of equipment to a computing device that is roughly the size of a car’s license plate. The company calls the computer Drive PX Pegasus. The computer can deliver 320 trillion operations per second of computing power, equivalent to the AI performance of a 100-server data center according to Huang.

Why does the autonomous driving computer need so much power? Because at Level 5 autonomy it is monitoring the entire driving environment and adjusting the performance of the vehicle to that environment. The vehicle uses its computer to process what its cameras, radar and microphones see and hear in the same way human drivers use their eyes and ears. The computer must be able to respond at least as quickly as a human driver in any situation that arises.

Nvidia’s Drive PX platform gathers all the data from all the cameras and sensors on an autonomous vehicle and sends it to the AI-based operating system where it is combined with high-definition 3D map of the car’s environment. Nvidia has also developed a system-on-a-chip processor (Xavier) that controls the operation of the Drive PX platform. According to a report The Verge, Pegasus is equal to two Xavier units plus two next-generation discrete graphics processing units (GPUs).

Nvidia also revealed that it has teamed up with Deutsche Post DHL Group to deploy a test fleet of autonomous delivery trucks starting next year.