Investors bank on China’s alternatives to Nvidia’s auto chips


In China, a crop of homegrown chip companies has popped up as Beijing strives to decouple from America’s advanced technology and manage sanctions risks, which have crippled Huawei’s lucrative smartphone business. In the red-hot space of autonomous driving, Chinese semiconductor firms, buoyed with venture capital, are aiming to provide the best alternatives to Nvidia and its like.

In a race to catch up with their American counterparts, China’s chip firms find themselves in an economic downturn that is hurting sales and investor interest. Over 3,400 Chinese chip-related companies have collapsed over the past year, according to a count by The Financial Times.

But the top candidates are still getting funded. Robotics Horizons, founded by a Baidu deep learning veteran, has just received a strategic round from state-owned carmaker Chery Automobile. The amount wasn’t disclosed, but by the end of last year, Horizon’s publicly announced funding had reached $3.4 billion.

Telecom equipment giant Huawei and startup Black Sesame Technologies are also among the more serious Chinese players trying to challenge Nvidia’s primacy in making auto-grade chips. Black Sesame has raised $115 million so far, according to public data.

So how does Horizon’s technology hold out against that of Nvidia? Well, the American chip behemoth turned many heads last week when it unveiled Drive Thor, its next-generation auto-grade chip designed to unify autonomous driving and in-car technology.

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

In comparison, Horizon Robotics’ most up-to-date 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.

China’s carmakers probably find it hard to pass on Nvidia’s state-of-the-art semiconductor, which is expected to significantly boost vehicles’ smart driving and in-car entertainment capabilities.

Among the first to sign up is Zeekr, the premium electric vehicle brand of China’s largest private carmaker Geely. Zeekr plans to deploy Drive Thor in 2025 when the chip goes into mass production.

As my colleague Rebecca pointed out earlier, Xpeng, a Tesla challenger based out of Guangzhou, is already using Orin Drive to power advanced driver assistance functions in its flagship SUV G9. Other Chinese automakers that have previously announced the use of Nvidia’s Drive Orin include internet giant Baidu’s EV brand Jidu as well as U.S.-listed EV upstarts NIO and Li Auto.

While new U.S. sanctions bar Nvidia from selling high-end data center chips to China, the American firm said it’s still allowed to ship auto chips to Chinese customers.

We are yet to see find out how Journey 5 fares in its home market but Horizon claimed last year that the chip had already garnered interest from a couple of 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.


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