Meet Tesla's self-driving car computer and its two AI brains

CNET | 8/20/2019 | Stephen Shankland
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Two big, square AI processors power Tesla's third-generation full self-driving car computer. Tesla showed the computer at the Hot Chips conference.

Designing your own chips is hard. But Tesla, one of the most aggressive developers of autonomous vehicle technology, thinks it was worth it. The company revealed details Tuesday about how it fine-tuned its AI chip design so two of them are smart enough to power its cars' upcoming "full self-driving" abilities.

Tesla - Chief - Executive - Elon - Musk

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk and his colleagues revealed Tesla's third-generation computing hardware in April, but at the Hot Chips conference, chip designers showed how heavy optimizations in Tesla's custom AI chips dramatically boosted performance -- a factor of 21 compared to the earlier Nvidia chips. As an added bonus, it's only 80% the cost, too.

The company needed better hardware to achieve its 2019 goal full self-driving goal, in which cars navigate not only freeways as today but also local streets with stop signs and traffic lights. "It was clear to us, in order to meet our performance levels at the power constraints and the form factor constraints we had, we had to design something of our own," said Ganesh Venkataramanan, one of the chip designers and a former AMD processor engineer.

Effort - Processor - Chip - Magnitude - Work

It's a major effort to design a processor chip. The magnitude of the work is reflected in the gargantuan number of transistors -- 6 billion -- that make up the processing circuitry on each of Tesla's chips. But Tesla's in-house expertise, spanning everything from processors and software to battery manufacturing and charging stations, gives it a major advantage over conventional auto makers.

"Other car manufacturers can't compete," said New Street analyst Pierre Ferragu in an August report on Tesla. "Their business model doesn't allow them to fit all cars with this expensive hardware, and they run vastly behind on technology,...
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