A safe $7trn bet: Could cars be bigger than computers for Intel?

10 Jan 2019

Prof Amnon Shashua, Intel SVP and Mobileye president and CEO, speaking at CES 2019 in Las Vegas. Image: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation

Just how is Intel putting its pedal to the metal on autonomous vehicles?

At CES 2019, while a lot of the attention was quite rightly on the future of computing and what Intel intends to do through frameworks and its new Ice Lake processors, the chip giant showed its hand in terms of a $7trn bet on the future of tech and transport. And the chips are firmly on the road rather than the table.

At the landmark tech event in Las Vegas, Intel revealed its framework for Automated Vehicle Safety Standards. On closer evaluation, it indicates a fairly well-thought-out and methodical strategy for how the electronics giant could very well dominate in autotech at a level that leaves other tech players – such as Apple, Google and Microsoft – in the dusty haze of a rearview mirror.

‘Today, we are taking RSS technology back into our ADAS lab and proposing its use as a proactive augment to automatic emergency braking’

Behold what are quintessentially the fruits of Intel’s acquisition of Israel-based start-up Mobileye for the eye-watering sum of $15.3bn in 2017: safety standards. Both companies have made it clear they want to be the brains that will drive 8m vehicles in the years ahead.

At CES last year, Intel revealed a car, a Ford Fusion fitted with Mobileye autonomous driving technology that can see at a distance of up to 300 metres, but you get the sense that Intel’s view of the future is even further out. 

You see, today, 90pc of the value of a new car is understood to be in its electronics. Intel could be betting on the future of transport being every bit as vital as its initial bet on the Pentium processor for computers during the PC age in the 1990s and on servers ahead of the cloud age.  

This isn’t just about driverless cars – though they are part of it – but potentially all cars made from now on. This week at CES, Intel revealed that many of the technologies developed for fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) can actually improve the advanced driver assistance systems that are already in wider use. 

In June, former Intel CEO Brian Krzanich coined its next move “the passenger economy” and predicted an explosive economic trajectory, growing from $800bn in 2035 to $7trn by 2050.

“Companies should start thinking about their autonomous strategy now,” said Krzanich. “Less than a decade ago, no one was talking about the potential of a soon-to-emerge app or sharing economy because no one saw it coming. This is why we started the conversation around the passenger economy early, to wake people up to the opportunity streams that will emerge when cars become the most powerful mobile data-generating devices we use, and people swap driving for riding.”

At CES, as well as safety features, Intel and Warner Bros even revealed an immersive comic book experience for passengers in future autonomous vehicles, taking them on a 270-degree journey through the streets of Gotham City, home to DC Comics superhero Batman.

Revving up the silicon engine

While cars with various levels of autonomy can be bought today, the technology is still in its infancy. And Intel is focusing on setting the standards for safety now. 

Intel is on to something here. It points out that safety is indeed one of the biggest roadblocks to AV adoption. And, as the auto industry makes an adjustment from fossil fuels to electricity, leading the standards race in Europe, the US and China is a strategy that could put Intel in pole position. 

Prof Amnon Shashua, Intel’s senior vice-president and Mobileye’s CEO revealed how Intel has developed a technology-neutral responsibility-sensitive safety (RSS) mathematical approach to safer AV decision-making. He said that China’s ministry of transportation, China ITS, has approved a proposal to use RSS as the framework for its forthcoming AV safety standard. 

The key is becoming a leader in the development of an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS). 

“Today, we are taking RSS technology back into our ADAS lab and proposing its use as a proactive augment to automatic emergency braking (AEB),” Shashua said. “We call this automatic preventative braking (APB). Using formulas to determine the moment when the vehicle enters a dangerous situation, APB would help the vehicle return to a safer position by applying small, barely noticeable preventative braking instead of sudden braking to prevent a collision.” 

China, the world’s largest passenger vehicle market, is a smart move for Intel. As well as China ITS, Chinese search giant Baidu has reported the first open source implementation of RSS while European automotive supplier Valeo will collaborate with the electronics giant on the adoption of AV safety standards in Europe, the US and China. Not only that, but Great Wall Motors, a leading domestic automaker in China, is working with Mobileye to extend the latter’s presence in China.   

Similar alliances have been engineered with the Arizona Institute for Automated Mobility, RAND Corporation, Volkswagen, Champion Motors in Israel and Beijing Public Transport Corporation. In terms of the latter, it announced a collaboration with Beijing Beytai to commercially deploy autonomous public transport services in China. The new solution is expected to be initially deployed in 2022. 

The plan is that Mobileye’s proprietary reinforcement learning algorithms will enable human-like driving skills for vehicle systems, pairing with the superhuman sight and reaction times possible through the technology’s sensing and computing platforms. Channelling Mobileye’s driving policy technology, vehicles equipped with the AV kit will be able to negotiate with other human-driven vehicles on the road in complex situations. 

Intel is betting big on autonomous vehicles but is smartly working on the safety aspect that could benefit future generations of cars that will arrive before driverless cars reach their destination. 

And, by doubling down on markets such as China early on, Intel is laying the groundwork for the innovations that may follow if traditional carmakers, as well as tech players such as Apple and Google, descend on the AV opportunity in a meaningful way. 

It is definitely a pedal-to-the-metal time. Fasten your safety belts!

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years