Qualcomm took reporters on interstate highway test rides at speeds over 60 mph near the Las Vegas strip to showcase new autonomous driving tech enabled with its latest Snapdragon automotive platform.
The 20-minute demonstration of the assisted and autonomous driving technology was uneventful for me even though it could have been harrowing. The drive-along included several autonomous merges into traffic and a 360-degree turn on a cloverleaf exit ramp. (I had to sign an injury waiver.)
A safety driver was behind the wheel, but he didn’t steer or put his feet on the brakes or accelerator throughout the highway portion of the demo. He did take full control when the car ran on city surface streets and confronted other vehicles at stoplights.
Qualcomm outfitted a Lincoln MKZ for the demonstration, running over a pre-arranged course that ran mostly in moderate freeway traffic. The car was equipped with eight cameras and six radars and, interestingly, no LiDAR sensors. The secret sauce was in the trunk—a third-generation Snapdragon Ride Platform announced formally by Qualcomm on Monday at CES 2020. By working without LiDAR, Qualcomm said it wanted to show that carmakers can create assisted and autonomous vehicles that don’t need to rely on LiDAR at all, which can be expensive.
Qualcomm has been testing similarly-equipped vehicles for a year in San Diego, but now it includes an improved adaptive lane feature to allow drivers to pick the gap in traffic they want to merge into, based how assertive they are in merging or changing lanes. Some drivers will accelerate to merge into a gap, while others will slow down to find a gap. For the purposes of the demonstration, Qualcomm used an automated voice that would ask, “Do you want to merge?” and the safety driver would press a button to consent. For carmakers, a voice request might or might not be used in the future.
Snapdragon Ride consists of a family of Ride Safety system-on-chips, a safety accelerator and an autonomous software stack. In the trunk, it all fits into a small box about the size of a large shoebox. Ride is intended to address the needs of complex self-driving technology and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) with high performance and power efficiency. It can reach more than 700 tera operations per second (TOPS) at 130 watts for the most sophisticated autonomous vehicles. It can be passively air-cooled for simple vehicle designs, reducing the need for water-cooled designs.
It will be available to automakers and suppliers in the first half of 2020, and vehicles using the technology could be put into production in 2023.
Qualcomm believes that its Ride system will first be used with a single SoC for active safety ADAS systems emerging now and later will be used for fully autonomous self-driving vehicles that rely on a highly scalable architecture using multiple SoCs and autonomous driving accelerators.
Qualcomm first began working in the automotive sector in 2002 and then in 2013 provided a modem solution for OnStar emergency technology. In more recent years it has provided technology for infotainment systems, AI and cellular as well as non-line-of-sight sensing and various other applications.
The company has long been aware of the need to focus on safety with AVs. “For five years, we’ve had a big team focused on enhancing the safety of the people in the car,” said Anshuman Saxena, senior director of product management for ADAS and autonomous driving at Qualcomm. “We have to be where the car is going to interact with you and every minute you know what’s happening.”
Qualcomm is like many other chipmakers and carmakers in a complex AV ecosystem that includes interactions with standards bodies and governments that control traffic signals and other road infrastructure. While there is a constant worry about how to make AVs safer with better sensors and faster processors, government officials have supported the move to fully autonomous tech because AVs are considered a way to drastically reduce highway deaths. More than 90% of the 30,000-plus annual highway fatalities in the U.S. are blamed on driver error, they note.
Snapdragon Ride is designed to be open, scalable and programmable to help carmakers create vehicles that are low-cost, with more performance and power efficiency, he said.
Also Monday, Qualcomm announced a reference platform for on-vehicle and roadside units to work with cellular vehicle-to-everything (C V2X) communications. It supports 4G/5G wireless and multifrequency Global Navigation Satellite System location services.
Nineteen global automakers are now working with Qualcomm’s infotainment platform, the company said. Revenues for its auto segment were more than $600 million in fiscal 2019, a number expected to nearly triple by 2024. Qualcomm also bragged that it has designs in the pipeline for automotive products valued at $6.5 billion.