Data Sheet—The Real Big Story From Tesla’s Earnings

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I think it’s probably time to let the cat out of the bag because the cat’s going to come out of the bag anyway.”—Elon Musk, August 2, 2018

Overlooked in all the hoopla last week around Elon Musk’s apology, astronaut flights announced for his SpaceX business, and Tesla’s improving rates of production was a little news about silicon. Tesla has been relying on chips from Nvidia to power its autopilot and self-driving car features, specifically Nvidia’s PX2 platform. But last week, Musk “let the cat out of the bag” about the carmaker’s own chip efforts. Nvidia is out, to be replaced in all Teslas with a chip developed internally. “I’m a big fan of Nvidia, they do great stuff,” Musk noted before giving them the axe.

There are several angles of interest. It almost seems like there is a small group of genius chip designers who travel the world making the magic happen at one company after another. For one, take the press-shy silicon architect Jim Keller. Keller helped design AMD’s hit Athlon processor in the 1990s, went to Apple to build the A4 and A5 chips for iPhones and iPads, and then returned to AMD to work on the Ryzen CPU before joining Tesla in 2016. Lately, he’s hopscotched to Intel. Keller doesn’t talk to reporters much. (I got no response to my entreaties last year when I was writing about AMD.) But he did give an interview to the chip-focused news site Anandtech last month. “I kind of work and focus more on the next really interesting problem,” Keller explained.

Another really interesting problem may be what this development portends for the future revenues of chipmakers like Nvidia, Intel, and AMD that are counting on the nascent self-driving car market to demand a lot of their top-end, most expensive products. Musk said Tesla’s home grown solution was 10 times faster than Nvidia’s at the same cost. Nvidia, though, has announced its own next-gen chip for autonomous driving called Pegasus, also with 10 times better performance. Perhaps there are other advantages to Tesla’s chips as well, such as lower cost or energy consumption. In any event, Wall Street shrugged off the news and Nvidia shares were unchanged last week (and are still up 30% this year).

Finally, I think this move adds another commonality on the Steve Jobs-Elon Musk nexus. Jobs famously wanted command over all the key ingredients of Apple’s products. “I’ve always wanted to own and control the primary technology in everything we do,” he explained back 2004. Seems like Musk may be following that advice.


Retargeting. The biggest video game on the planet currently, Fortnite, is finally coming to Android, but perhaps not as Google might wish. Epic Games said it will distribute the Android version of its addictive battle game on its own website, not the Google Play Store. The aim is to avoid Google's 30% cut of revenue, CEO Tim Sweeney explained, calling the fee "disproportionate to the cost of services these stores perform."

Placing blame. Speaking of tough breaks for Google, a bipartisan group of six Senators wrote to CEO Sundar Pichai inquiring about the company's reported plan to create a censored search engine for China. Such a move would be “deeply troubling and risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses," the Senators charged. Wait until the lawmakers find out that Google is also in talks with Tencent and other Chinese companies about bringing its cloud services back to that country.

Holiday gifting puzzle. A computer virus slowed production last week at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, which makes chips for the iPhone and many other popular devices. The cyber attack, which the company says will be fully resolved on Monday, will slow shipments to unspecified customers, TSMC admitted.

Beantown vs. the Big Apple. Is a little hometown bragging in order? No, not because the Red Sox swept the Yankees in a four game series (although, yeah, go Sox). It seems that Boston has also overtaken New York in the race for second place in venture capital funding (behind forever-leader Silicon Valley). So far this year, Boston area firms have raised $5.2 billion, about 15% more then New York startups, Crunchbase reports. If the trend continues for the rest of 2018, it would be the first time since 2012 that Boston companies won the second place VC crown.

Oil change. Chinese ride sharing giant Didi Chuxing Technology is spinning out its car services unit into a separate business with a $1 billion investment. The unit, called Xiaoju Automobile Solutions, offers car leasing, refueling, and maintenance services.


Apple's decision last year to raise the price of new iPhones and introduce a $999 model has mostly been explained as a strategic decision to increase revenue (and a successful decision, at that). But there are also pressures building on Apple and its smartphone competitors in the rising cost of components. Jessica Dolcourt takes a deep dive for CNET into the smartphone supply chain to figure out what's going on and why phone prices are likely headed even higher:

Demand for more storage over the past few years has triggered price hikes, pushing up the cost of memory and prompting suppliers to invest in building more factories to meet the demand, according to Wood.

Adding more sophisticated cameras like the iPhone X's 3D depth sensing front-facing camera, or more lenses, like the Huawei P20 Pro's three rear shooters, costs more too. And so do materials like glass or ceramic for a phone's backing, or sturdy aerospace-grade aluminum for the frame.

You can bet that the first phone to debut a diamond glass screen or the new, smudge-resistant Vibrant Satin Corning Gorilla Glass won't be cheap. It's also expensive for companies like Samsung to build a whole new manufacturing process for elements like curved glass and flexible OLED displays.


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In most stories about time travel, the big challenge is getting the protagonists back to a previous point in time. But Columbia University astrophysicist Caleb Scharf, perhaps inspired by the Monty Python musical number The Universe Song, says a second big challenge is never addressed.

The Earth is spinning on its axis, it's also circling the sun, and the entire solar system is rapidly flinging its way through the galaxy. So the time traveller needs to move in space, not just time, to reach a desired locale in the past. In just one month, the solar system traverses 600 million kilometers. Sorry, Doc Brown, just one flux capacitor probably won't be enough.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.

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