Volvo draws first blood with Nvidia’s Orin chip in quest for self-driving cars

April 13, 2021, 7:43 PM UTC

In the race to develop self-driving vehicles, Sweden’s Volvo looks set to gain an advantage over the competition by incorporating—well ahead of its rivals—the latest hardware from U.S. semiconductor manufacturer Nvidia.

Effectively a type of central nervous system for cars, Nvidia’s proprietary Orin chip combines 17 billion transistors across various processing cores. It was designed to crunch vast amounts of data generated by autonomous vehicles, which navigate by constantly probing their surroundings.

The next generation of Volvo’s XC90 flagship crossover will come equipped with Orin starting in 2022, two years before Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz gets the chip. More Volvo models sharing the same underpinnings as the XC90 are expected to follow, also featuring Orin.

“We believe in partnering with the world’s leading technology firms to build the best Volvos possible,” said chief technology officer Henrik Green in a statement. “We can take safety to the next level on our next generation of cars,” with Orin’s help, he added.

An Nvidia spokesperson told Fortune that the company has not been affected by the global semiconductor shortage and expects to meet its supply obligations to carmakers.

Bragging rights

The deal means Volvo, a subsidiary of Chinese carmaker Zhejiang Geely Holding since 2010, will be the first global brand to get access to the technology. There are some bragging rights in that.

With great fanfare, Mercedes announced last June that it had reached a deal that will see Orin gradually rolled out across its range starting in 2024. 

Investor darlings Nio, Xpeng, and Li Auto— all U.S.-listed Chinese electric-vehicle companies worth tens of billions of dollars—put in orders for Orin or its less advanced sibling, Xavier, as did startups such as Vietnam’s VinFast. The deals cement Nvidia’s status as the supplier of choice for hardware that powers self-driving cars. 

Orin can perform 254 trillion operations per second (TOPS), much faster than Xavier’s 30 trillion. Tesla’s own proprietary HW3 system, which underpins the Full Self-Driving feature, can handle only 144 trillion.

Despite ambitious claims to the contrary by brands like Tesla, the much-hyped self-driving technology remains in its infancy. Almost no passenger car currently available for purchase is capable of true autonomy—at most, they can safely steer themselves in less challenging traffic conditions.

Only Honda’s Legend flagship sedan, launched in March, can assume full control in limited circumstances and at low speeds on Japanese highways, legally freeing drivers to take their eyes off the road.

Mercedes has aspirations to follow Honda in the second half of this year with a similar feature in its S-Class luxury limousine for German roads. Mercedes has not revealed the hardware it will use, and the planned timing may still slip.

Best known for its innovations in the area of safety, Volvo aims to use Nvidia’s Orin to propel itself to forefront of the self-driving technology once the brand’s third-generation XC90 is launched.

Much like Honda’s Legend and Mercedes’ S-Class, it will offer an “eyes-off” system called Highway Pilot that drivers will be able to activate when conditions allow, provided local laws permit it. Over time, Volvo can then increase the SUV’s intelligence by uploading new software to the vehicle.

Who pays for a fender bender?

The key difference between advanced assistance features and piloted systems is legal liability. Tesla’s Full Self-Driving, soon to see its ninth iteration, warns drivers they are at all times responsible for any crash. By comparison, Volvo would be on the hook for any damages incurred when Highway Pilot is engaged.

There are much more advanced self-driving cars, but they are operated by fleets and are not for private ownership. Alphabet’s Waymo One robotaxis driving around in Phoenix are fully autonomous, for example. Yet their prodigious computing power combined with a sensor suite is as expensive as the underlying cars, putting them well beyond the reach of normal consumers. 

Nvidia is already working on the next-generation successor to the Orin. Dubbed Atlan, the chip should be more powerful than those found in such Waymo cars, Nvidia announced on Monday.

This could technically enable cars to handle any driving situation, allowing passengers to not only take their eyes off the road, but even get some shut-eye behind the wheel.

The first chip under development to feature 1,000 TOPS, Atlan is roughly four times as powerful as Orin. The first samples are due to be shipped to interested customers in the auto industry in 2023. Nvidia hopes Atlan will be ready for 2025 series production models. 

“It will be more than the total compute found in most robotaxis today,” Jensen Huang, Nvidia founder and CEO, said during a presentation on Monday.