Chinese electric car maker NIO and smartphone maker Xiaomi ended the year with new products that challenge NVIDIA and Apple. This marks further progress in China’s efforts to develop its own semiconductor technology and eliminate dependence on imports.
On December 23, NIO announced its first self-driving chip, which it claims is better than the NVIDIA Drive Orin chip it currently uses. Shenji NX9031 SoC (System on a Chip) is also used in the company’s new ET9 executive sedan, which was also announced at NIO Day 2023. The event, held in Xi’an, attracted more than 10,000 participants and attendees.
The ET9 is a long-wheelbase, four-door luxury EV priced at approximately 800,000 yuan, or $113,000 at current exchange rates. The ET9 is currently available for order in China, but deliveries are not expected to begin until the first quarter of 2025.
China’s first 5nm automotive IC, the NX9031, will likely be manufactured by TSMC, Samsung Electronics, or Intel Foundry Services. Theoretically, it could be manufactured in SMIC, but it would be less efficient and more expensive. Sanctions on China’s semiconductor industry have prevented SMIC from using advanced EUV lithography systems used by IC foundries outside China to manufacture chips with processes smaller than 5nm.
The NX9031 features an Arm 32-core CPU (central processing unit), NPU (neural processing unit), graphics core, and over 50 billion transistors. It is equipped with low power, double data rate LPDDR5X DRAM memory (probably made in Korea) and can process LIDAR (light detection and ranging) data.
Mimicking the human brain, the NPU derives optimal solutions from the available data. Lidar uses laser light to survey the environment and provide self-driving cars with 3D images of roads and traffic. The NX9031 works with his SkyOS, Nio’s vehicle operating system that covers vehicle control, driver assistance, cockpit systems and mobile connectivity.
According to NIO CEO William Li, the NX9031’s computing power is comparable to four NVIDIA Drive Orin SoCs, the standard configuration currently used in NIO’s electric vehicles. These 7 nm chips are capable of up to 254 TOPS (trillion operations per second) each, or 1,016 TOPS total. Vice President Bai Jian says this is enough for today’s smart driving, but not for the next generation of self-driving cars.
NVIDIA came to a similar conclusion. Drive Orin’s successor, Drive Thor, is scheduled to go into production in 2025. Drive Orin will have twice the computing power of his. What does this mean? NVIDIA Vice President Danny Shapiro explains:
“If you look at a car today, advanced driver assistance systems, parking, driver monitoring, camera mirrors, digital instrument clusters, and infotainment are all different computers distributed throughout the vehicle. is no longer a separate computer. Rather, Drive Thor allows manufacturers to efficiently integrate these functions into a single system, reducing overall system costs.”
NIO established an IC design team in 2020. Led by Bai Jian, its aim is to develop independent smart driving capabilities, including sensors, autonomous driving algorithms, and now his SoC. Bai previously served as an executive at Chinese smartphone makers OPPO and Xiaomi.
Xiaomi wins a draw against Apple
On December 28, Xiaomi unveiled its first electric car in front of a crowd of thousands of people at the China National Convention Center in Beijing. At the event, CEO Lei Jun said his company’s goal is to produce a dream car that rivals Porsche and Tesla.
Xiaomi SU7 (SU stands for Speed Ultra) is a four-door electric sedan designed by experts who have worked at BMW and Mercedes-Benz, and manufactured by BAIC (Beijing Automobile Industry Corporation). It is equipped with NVIDIA Drive Orin SoC and Xiaomi’s own operating system for driver assistance and autonomous driving. The video shows the SU7 avoiding obstacles on the road and parking without a driver.
Deliveries of two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive models are expected to begin in the coming months. Pricing has not yet been announced, but comparisons with Tesla’s Model S and Porsche’s Taycan Turbo suggest it could reach the range of 700,000 yuan to 900,000 yuan, about the same as the NIO ET9.
Xiaomi plans to invest about $10 billion in its automotive business over the next 10 years. “By working hard over the next 15 to 20 years, we will become one of the world’s top five automakers and strive to improve the overall quality of China’s auto industry,” CEO Lei said.
Xiaomi’s plans seem to rival Apple’s. Last September, MacRumours reported that a semi-autonomous Apple Car powered by a neural processor could still be released in 2026. However, there have been so many delays since the project began in 2014 and there has been so little information provided by management that the timeline has not yet been released.air
Apple CEO Tim Cook said: This is a core technology that we attach great importance to. We consider it the mother of all AI projects. This is probably one of the most difficult AI projects to tackle in practice. ” But he said that in 2017.
In any case, Xiaomi beat Apple to a tie, as did Huawei, which announced its entry into the electric car market in 2021. It is currently reported that Huawei plans to establish hundreds of new EV sales and service bases in China during 2021. next two years.
Under sanctions that proved far from devastating, Huawei developed its own automotive ICs and operating system. The mobile data center’s Ascend chipset is capable of 352 TOPS and enables Level 4 advanced driving automation. This means fully automated driving under certain conditions such as defined routes, highway driving, and parking.
Meanwhile, NVIDIA continues to supply products to more than a dozen Chinese automakers, including NIO, Xiaomi, BYD, DENZA, Human Horizons, Ji Yue, Xpeng, and ZEEKR (owned by Geely). ZEEKR is the first Chinese automaker to announce the adoption of Drive Thor. Xpeng has reportedly asked his NVIDIA to provide a custom-designed version of Drive Thor.
At the end of November, it was reported that NVIDIA was recruiting more than 20 experts for its self-driving development team in China. The team is led by Wu Xinzhou, who joined NVIDIA last August. Prior to that, he was Vice President of Autonomous Driving at Xpeng.
NVIDIA is likely to maintain a strong position in China’s self-driving market unless the US Department of Commerce decides Drive Thor is too good for China. If that happens, Chinese companies should be able to make a comeback.
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