Intel Inside (Your Autonomous Car)

June 3, 2014

In 2007, Steve Jobs changed the world by introducing the iPhone. At the time, people thought, "This is fantastic! Apple has taken my phone, my iPod, and my Filofax, and wrapped them into one sleek little package!"

But most folks failed to see the bigger picture: Jobs had taken computers off our desks and put them into our pockets. In many ways, the iPhone's debut marked the beginning of a revolution that's just now beginning to pick up steam.

Of course, motorists have relied on computers for years. Though we haven't typically thought of them in the same way that we've thought of our trusty laptops, in-car computers have kept tabs on engine performance, managed our transmissions, and performed countless other tasks.

Now, however, we're reaching the point at which drivers interact directly with in-car computers, just as we interact with our laptops and tablets at home and work. And in the future, as autonomous cars arrive in showrooms, computers will become increasingly integral to the experience of riding in a vehicle.

Intel is trying to get in on the action before it's too late.


Intel has built its reputation and its fortune on computer hardware -- microprocessors, mostly. Now that everything from our wallets to our watches comes with those silicon wafers, you might think that Intel would be well positioned for a bright future. But you'd be wrong for a couple of reasons:

1) There's a lot more competition in the marketplace. Creating microprocessors used to be something of an arcane art, but over the past few decades, everyone's gotten into the act. As a result, Intel has cut prices, invested in R&D, and lost market share -- not to mention cash.

2) Silicon is dying. For years, microchip makers have lived by Moore's Law -- the one that says technological advances can double computing power every 18 months. But the unpleasant little secret is that there's only so far that silicon can go, and within the next six or seven years, silicon will have reached its peak usefulness as a processing material. Companies like Intel are scrambling to find the next major material, and while many believe that graphene could be it, there's no concensus yet.

To maintain profitability in the face of such challenges, Intel is trying to branch out. Its latest offering: prefab hardware and software systems to support in-car infotainment.

The company hasn't published many details about those systems except to say that they're long-lived, upgradeable, and well-tested. They're designed not only to provide access to navigation, music, and other app-based features, but they also interact with vehicular hardware, like rearview cameras. And perhaps most importantly, the system is lightweight and quick to load. As cars morph from the vehicles we know today to become increasingly autonomous, each of those elements will become very, very important.


Intel has been losing ground in the microchip field for a while, and the company clearly knows it. Intel has considered many ways of shifting focus, including the production of batteries for electric cars, but so far, nothing's really stuck.

Creating in-car computing systems doesn't seem like much of a stretch for Intel, and in theory, it would be a great move for the company -- if only Intel had bothered to do it a couple of years ago. 

Unfortunately, Android and Apple -- the two biggest kids on the mobile playground -- have already begun rolling out in-dash systems for new cars. Those are the operating systems most consumers already use on their phones and tablets, and it's likely that they'll dominate sales.

What Intel is offering, on the other hand, is a way for automakers to develop their own infotainment systems, which is a terrible idea. No automaker has done so well, and some of those who've tried have seriously damaged their reputation (cf. MyFord Touch and Sync).  

The only place Intel might stand a decent chance is in managing "under the hood" systems -- that is, radar and cameras and other sensors that keep self-driving cars safe. Based on the demo video above, it doesn't seem as if Intel is interested in that more limited role, but the company may not have much choice.

[via Mashable]


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