Mercedes-Benz Tuesday announced a new partnership deal with Nvidia to develop an in-vehicle computing system architecture designed for software-upgradable ADAS vehicles that are scheduled for rollout in 2024.
The German automaker is playing catch-up with over-the-air (OTA) software updates Tesla has pioneered. Under the new system architecture, Mercedes-Benz will be able to apply software updates not just to its in-vehicle infotainment units but to an entire vehicle — a feat that has stumped traditional OEMs because their vehicle architectures are tied to legacy platforms.
A single platform across the board
The big deal in this deal is that Mercedes-Benz is putting all its eggs in Nvidia’s basket.
Nvidia is reciprocating with “a huge upfront investment” in Mercedes-Benz via its new computing hardware and a team of expert AI and software engineers committed to making “perpetual software upgrades” possible, Danny Shapiro explained in a phone interview with EE Times.
Shapiro said, “Mercedes-Benz has chosen a single platform — Nvidia’s DRIVE AGX Orin — across the board from the A-Class to S-Class models.” Further, although the DRIVE AGX Orin platform comes in a variety of SoCs ranging from 10 TOPS at 5 watts to 200 TOPS, Mercedes-Benz picked 200 TOPS as a single vehicle computing system. It’s using it on every model along with the same sensor suites, he added.
The focus of the two companies’ collaborations is on “upgradable” ADAS to be built on the new computing platform. Under the agreement, they will develop “autonomously assisted” vehicle applications that include SAE level 2 and 3, as well as automated parking functions (up to level 4),” they said.
Fallout with BMW Most traditional car OEMs are risk averse. It is not unusual to see carmakers hedge their bets with apparently duplicate partnership deals among themselves or with Tier Ones or tech companies, especially in the area of autonomous vehicles.
This habit of betting on two horses is exemplified in Mercedes-Benz’ commitment to collaborate with BMW less than a year ago. The deal was for the companies to work together on a long-term basis to develop next-generation automated driving technology.
Phil Magney, founder and principal of VSI Labs, told EE Times, “Both BMW and Mercedes have taken a half-hearted approach” that failed to yield any real progress. This happened because “both BMW & Mercedes are focused on selling personal vehicles, and AVs don’t fit with their business model,” he observed. “When they felt their survival was threatened by AVs, they reluctantly joined the effort. Now that AVs are a less of an imminent threat, they don’t feel compelled to talk that talk as much.”
The Covid-19 economy is also a factor, noted Egil Juliussen, automotive industry analyst. “Fewer sales of vehicles means they have less money to spend on their R&D,” he said. Clearly, Mercedes-Benz put AV development on the back burner, and yet, “AV is too important to do nothing with it,” Juliussen speculated.
Conveniently, Nvidia, no longer just a chip company, commanding a wealth of AI expertise and software development skills, is coming to Mercedes-Benz’ rescue.
Unquestionably, Nvidia is assuming an increasingly critical role in the emerging software-centric automotive industry. Nvidia’s Shapiro said, “We are not Tier Ones, and we will never replace them.” Nonetheless, he pointed out, “A lot of features and functions will be offered to vehicles in the form of software upgrades” instead of gradual hardware replacements, he observed. Nvidia is positioning itself right in the middle of this transformation.
Forget Robotaxi Similarly, Mercedes-Benz is also cooling its relationship with Bosch. Late last year, Mercedes Benz and Tier One supplier Bosch announced they were launching a pilot project for an app-based ride-hailing service using self-driving vehicles in the city of San Jose, California.
During the partnership announcement with Nvidia, Ola Källenius, chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz AG, explained that his company’s AV efforts are now focused on trucks. Robotaxis are further in the future.
The decision illustrates how Mercedes-Benz’ calculus on AVs has quickly changed in just a few months.
Centralized computer architecture Many industry observers pointed out that the biggest piece of the Mercedes-Benz-Nvidia announcement is Mercedes’ decision to adopt a centralized computer architecture.
But as VSI Labs’ Magney observed, they’ve done so because it can support a software-defined car. “Honestly, they don’t have the know-how to go there alone. They need a partner to pull off this radical change to vehicle systems design. Mercedes-Benz also needs help on the automated vehicle technologies.”
Magney went on: “You can also say that Mercedes-Benz is about to throw in the towel on legacy E/E architecture and needs an answer to Tesla.” Magney called the partnership “a smart decision by both companies.” He added, “I’m glad Mercedes-Benz is making this move. They might be many years behind Tesla, but it is better late than never.”
As Mike Demler, senior analyst at the Linley Group, told EE Times, both Mercedes-Benz and Nvidia “kept making a really big deal about ‘software-defined’ vehicle architecture, as if it was a new concept nobody else is working on.” But Tesla’s been there, doing that.
How to enable a whole vehicle OTA software upgrades is a goal every car OEM and chip company has been pondering. “The subject was the focus of NXP Semiconductors’ S32G gateway chip” announced in January, said Demler. “All automakers are doing that or planning to, with OTA to allow updates and cellular connectivity to generate post-sales revenue from services.” The only difference is the hardware. Car OEMs must choose whether to use that “big 700W Ampere Drive system as the compute platform,” or something else.
Mercedes-Benz operating system During the press conference, Mercedes-Benz’ Källenius mentioned repeatedly that his company has been developing a Mercedes-Benz OS, supposedly an entire vehicle OS.
Juliussen was just as puzzled as we are about what Källenius meant by that. Given the existence of Autosar, an open, standardized software architecture for automotive electronic control units (ECUs), Juliussen speculated that the Mercedes-Benz OS might sit above a collection of such real-time operating systems (RTOS) designed for operating different vehicle functions.
Magney told us, “I don’t think Mercedes-Benz would develop their own OS. In the case of a centralized controller, you’ll need a RTOS with all the safety layers and support for Adaptive Autosar. There are companies out there that make these such as QNX, who is already approved for Nvidia.”
More questions While Nvidia boasts that its hardware’s computing power has a ton of room to spare, enabling a host of ADAS features, this is still half the story in Demler’s mind. Questions include how the system architecture deals with other components, such as the gateway 5G modem, he noted. “It’s more a system integration project, and the software is a huge part of that.”
Demler noted that this project with Mercedes-Benz will benefit Nvidia, providing it an actual production system on the road from which to acquire data from, as Tesla is doing today with Autopilot, and Mobileye with its REM system.”