“The advantage that silicon photonics can provide is a small form factor solution, which can result in a compact size of the device in the car at the end,” says Kiyoul Yang, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Stanford which focuses on photonic hardware. Many companies today use a lidar system based on rotating mirrors, Yang says, which requires the manufacture of discrete and expensive components. “If everything can be built into a chip in a small form factor, then anything can be produced at low cost,” he says.
Once again, Mobileye is not the only company to bet on FMCW, or more broadly on lidar chips. But it has a distinct advantage in the fact that Intel already has an operational silicon photonics manufacturing plant in New Mexico. “Being able to build an FMCW lidar takes skill, but also if you don’t have the special fabs to create the lidar on a chip, it becomes too expensive. It is getting difficult to handle, ”Shashua says. He expects the cost of each lidar SoC to be in the hundreds of dollars each, orders of magnitude cheaper than systems cost today.
Even if Mobileye’s production roadmap continues, an uncertain regulatory outlook could slow its schedule. Yet it is also making progress in the shorter term, announcing today at CES that it will expand its autonomous vehicle testing to Detroit, Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai in 2020 (locations are strategic; each is close to a manufacturer. automobile that Mobileye provides autonomous driving technologies for.) And it has used the millions of cars with Mobileye on board to crowdsource a nearly billion-kilometer map of the world’s roads to date, processing 8 million kilometers each. day. Despite all the attention Tesla is getting, Mobileye is by far the market share leader in the autonomous driving space.
This reputation, and Intel’s deep pockets, will help it face smaller competitors in the race for lidar SoCs. “I am convinced that in the automotive industry, reliability is a big differentiator,” says Mike Ramsey, Automotive Analyst at Gartner. “Can I trust this supplier to deliver on time, to deliver quality? And Intel has the very important characteristic of being a very big throat to choke on if something goes wrong. Don’t underestimate the value of this. “
Mobileye represents a small percentage of Intel’s overall revenue. But along with the client IT group, that is, the chips that go into PCs and adjacent products, this is the only segment that has grown in the company’s last quarter. This is exactly the kind of new territory that Intel needs to aggressively dig into to avoid yet another smartphone-style failure.
“If you’re looking at the long term, a company like Intel needs to look for new areas of growth. It’s not easy to find one. You want to look for a new market the size of hundreds of billions of dollars, ”Shashua says, as well as a market that leverages Intel’s strengths. “These areas are rare. We are in this area. “
XPU marks the spot
Mobileye’s lidar SoC is the most prominent example of what Intel calls its “XPU” strategy – that is, looking beyond the processor to computing in all its many forms. The company launched its first discrete graphics card last fall, occupies a dominant position in data center processors, and in 2019 acquired AI chipmaker Habana Labs, which a few weeks ago enabled Amazon Web Services to use its accelerators to train deep learning models.
“At our heart, we’re an IT company,” says Gregory Bryant, who heads Intel’s customer IT group. “We see this world where more and more things need computing, more and more things look like a computer, not just a server or a PC, but a car, a home, a home. factory, hospital. All of these things need computers and intelligence. “
This expansion comes at a time when Intel is facing more challenges than ever in its traditional industries. Manufacturing delays prevented it from going through a 10-nanometer process to manufacture its chips, while competitors moved to smaller shapes. The company’s engineering director, Murthy Renduchintala, left last summer. And the Third Point hedge fund issued a scorching public letter in late December, calling on Intel to “retain a reputable investment advisor to assess strategic alternatives, especially whether Intel is to remain an integrated device maker and the potential divestment of some failed acquisitions.”