Investors bet on Chinese alternatives to Nvidia’s auto chips

In China, a cluster of local chip companies has emerged as Beijing struggles to decouple itself from cutting-edge American technology and manage sanctions risks, which crippled Huawei’s lucrative smartphone business. In the hot autonomous driving space, Chinese semiconductor companies, backed by venture capital, aim to provide the best alternatives to Nvidia and its ilk.

In a race to catch up with their American counterparts, Chinese chip companies are finding themselves in an economic downturn that is hurting sales and investor interest. More than 3,400 Chinese chip-related companies have collapsed in the past year, according to a tally of The Financial Times.

But the best candidates are always funded. Robotics Horizons, founded by a Baidu deep learning veteran, has just received a strategic financing round from the public car manufacturer Chery Automobile. The amount was not disclosed, but late last year, Horizon’s publicly announced funding reached $3.4 billion.

Telecoms equipment giant Huawei and startup Black Sesame Technologies are also among the more serious Chinese players trying to challenge Nvidia’s primacy in manufacturing auto-grade chips. The black sesame has raised $115 million to dateaccording to public data.

So how does Horizon’s technology stack up against Nvidia’s? Well, the American chip giant turned a lot of heads last week when it unveiled Drive Thorits next-generation automatic grade chip designed to unify autonomous driving and in-car technology.

With 2,000 teraflops of performance, the silicon is a big step up from Nvidia’s current flagship, Drive Orin, which offers 254 TOPS of performance. TOPS measures a processor’s ability to calculate a trillion floating point operations per second.

In comparison, Horizon Robotics’ newest system-on-chip, called Journey 5, features up to 128 TOPS but also claims to be designed for level 4 driving. The chip is expected to go into production in 2022.

Chinese automakers are likely struggling to pass on Nvidia’s cutting-edge semiconductor, which is expected to dramatically improve vehicles’ smart driving and in-car entertainment capabilities.

Among the first to register, Zeekr, the premium electric vehicle brand of China’s largest private automaker Geely. Zeekr plans to roll out Drive Thor in 2025 when the chip enters mass production.

Like my colleague Rebecca underline earlier, Guangzhou-based Tesla challenger Xpeng is already using Orin Drive to powers the advanced driver assistance features of its flagship G9 SUV. Other Chinese automakers that have already announced the use of Nvidia’s Drive Orin include Internet giant Baidu’s electric vehicle brand Jidu, as well as new US-listed electric vehicle makers NIO. and Li Auto.

As new US sanctions prevent Nvidia from selling high-end data center chips to Chinathe American firm said it is still allowed to ship auto chips to Chinese customers.

We’re yet to find out how Journey 5 performs in its home market, but Horizon claimed last year that the chip has already attracted interest from a few local automakers, including SAIC Motor, Great Wall Motors, JAC Group , Changan Auto and BYD. . The Beijing-based startup said it had shipped over one million units of its Journey series chips by the end of 2021.

Robert D. Coleman