Nvidia's big, bad Xavier is the first of a breed of processors that will power the modern world
At GTC 2016, Nvidia previewed “Xavier,” an SoC that integrates a 512-core Volta GPU and an 8-core ARM CPU. Skipping the amusing retort given by most companies when questioned about leaks—we don’t pre-announce products—probably because press, analysts, and fans have been hearing about, Gee Daddy that’s a big one, Xavier for over two years. This is the SoC that’s going to revolutionize the nascent, autonomous driving market that most of us are anxiously looking forward to. The social, political, and financial changes autonomous vehicles will bring is so profound it seems like a science fiction story coming true. Just like a worldwide video communications device that fits in your shirt pocket.
Even a 512-core parallel processor with an additional eight cores for administrative tasks won’t be enough. Nvidia says Xavier can deliver 30 Teraflops at 30 W. The company has suggested there could be four to as many as eight Xaviers in an autonomous vehicle, and I don’t find that farfetched at all. However, many it turns out to be, and all those Xaviers, are going to need to be in constant communications with even bigger, faster supercomputers in the cloud. That’s going to require 5G, and we won’t have that in the major industrialized nations for several years.
Nvidia’s Xavier is a complex and complicated beast of a product. It will be the largest SoC in the world (till next biggest one) and as such requires billions of tests and simulations on supercomputers to try and tease out the corner cases before they ever get stuck in a vehicle. Also, the not so simple act of manufacturing such a giant chip takes time. As feature size goes down (16 nm for Xavier), transistor count (9 billion) and overall die size goes up (350 mm²), yield typically comes down, which in turn drives costs up.
Nvidia has a big one—Xavier is the biggest SoC ever made. (Source: Wikichip)
Nvidia said, at its 2018 GTC event, that it is sampling Drive Xavier now and that the device is expected to be in full production in Q1 2019. Drive Xavier is expected to be 20 times faster than the current shipping Drive Parker one-chip solution. Nvidia says Xavier will enable full Level 5 autonomy but they can’t substantiate that claim until some vehicle supplier demonstrates it, which could be as early as 2020, and certainly not sooner.
|Nvidia’s CEO and founder, Jen Hsun Huang, extols the virtues of Xavier. (Source: Fudzilla.com)|
Because of the impact autonomous vehicles will have, their development is under great scrutiny, by several federal agencies, state, and local governments, both for safety reasons and tax revenue; will citizens even need or want to own a vehicle in this brave new world? Will the concept of automobile insurance disappear? Will pollution laws change? Zoning laws that require the rapidly vanishing brick and mortar establishments to have specific amounts of allotted parking space? How will real estate values in congested areas change if 20% of the available ground-level space is no longer needed for parking? And when, where, and how do autonomous vehicles refuel or recharge?
No one person, agency, or organization has the answers to these questions, and its too big an issue to figure it out through trial and error. The one thing everyone can agree on is that for the vehicles of the future to function as we now dream about them working, those vehicles are going to be extremely smart, maybe even smarter than the humans currently hurling their beautiful killing machines down the under maintained roads.
A new day is coming
This revolution in transportation is no less significant or challenging than was the introduction of automatic transmissions, or automatic braking systems. The difficulty will be the transition period until 100% of the vehicles on the road are autonomous. Dealing with the human-in-the-loop between now and 100% autonomous vehicles will be the failure point—you can’t AI your way past stupid. Every heads-down phone tapping person walking across a street that somehow misses walking into a street sign and then walks into the side an autonomous vehicle will have four others making a video of him or her, blasting it all over the web, and providing evidence for lawyers.
In one vison of the modern city of the future, there will be no surface vehicles, they will be underground or overhead like the metro, and/or there will be vehicle only right of ways so pedestrian collisions will disappear. Congestion in the cities, which are expected to contain 66% or more of the population by 2050 (it’s 54% now), will require walkways and vehicle routes to be stacked vertically, just as building are. You can already see this happening in some of the larger cities like Tokyo, Paris, and Beijing.
|Will your future city look like this? (Source: Fotomak/Shutterstock)|
It was once thought video conferencing and telecommuting would eliminate, or at least minimize, traffic congestion—that only delivery vehicles would occupy the roads. Just the opposite has happened. There are more private cars—with only one person in them, more buses and taxis, and there are more delivery trucks as people buy more stuff on-line. Congestion has increased, and road capacity hasn’t. With autonomous vehicles the existing roadways could be used more efficiently, as we are shuttled like packets on the internet from one place to another.
And our packetizing modules with friction-based traction systems will be full of Xavier-like devices that will challenge the weight to travel distance ratios as more and more processors are incorporated and bigger heavier batteries are needed.
In the future, autonomous vans filled with Xaviers will arrive at vehicle platform builders, be off-loaded by Xavier-based articulated autonomous robots, handed to autonomous Xavier-based assembly machines, and integrated into autonomous vehicles which will drive themselves off the assembly line to the fleet operators who will dispatch them to your home for your next ride.