Tesla has been pushing autonomous technology hard in its all-electric vehicles, but thus far it’s only been able to manage partial automation. That could change in the coming years, with news that Tesla is moving full-speed ahead with plans to develop its own AI chip. CEO Elon Musk claims the company’s AI hardware will be the best in the world. Musk is sometimes prone to flights of fancy, but he’s also right a lot of the time.
Musk was giving a talk at the NIPS 2017 AI conference when he talked about the upcoming custom chip. The effort is reportedly being spearheaded by Tesla’s president of hardware, former AMD chip architect Jim Keller. A powerful custom AI chip could finally help Tesla move beyond the limited autopilot features it has offered in its cars over the last few years.
The current Tesla Autopilot system is what’s known as Level 2 Autonomy. These cars can accelerate, brake, and steer in certain conditions, but the driver must remain aware and ready to take over for the computer at any moment. At level 3, a car can monitor the environment and make changes, but will still notify the driver when it gets confused. At level 4, a vehicle can handle all the driving by itself in certain conditions, and the driver does not need to be involved. Level 5 is the holy grail — a completely autonomous vehicle that can handle all conditions by monitoring and understanding the world around it. A person in a Level 5 autonomous vehicle could take a nap and arrive at their destination feeling refreshed. This is what Tesla is aiming for with a custom AI chip.
When running artificial neural networks and similar AI code, there are a different set of hardware considerations. A traditional CPU can only do so much with brute force processing. Tesla isn’t the only company looking to design custom chips for AI, either. Google has its Tensor Processing Units (TPUs) and Huawei has the Neural Processing Unit (NPU) in the new Kirin 970 Arm chip.
The only technology we have today that approaches a Level 5 self-driving car is Alphabet’s Waymo subsidiary, which grew out of a project at Google. Even that is still far from ready for commercial availability. Musk is almost suspiciously confident, though. He claims it’ll be about two years for Tesla self-driving tech tor each Level 5, and another year after that it’ll be an order of magnitude better than humans.
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