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Why Nvidia ignored mobile and bet the farm on auto tech at CES

James Niccolai | Jan. 6, 2015
One pundit complained Nvidia's press conference was 'a teraflop'.

jen sun px flickr

They waited for "one last thing" at Nvidia's press conference, but it never came.

Instead, the graphics chip maker devoted its entire press event at the International CES Sunday night to technologies that will power the car of tomorrow.

At a show where smartphones, tablets and other portable gadgets make many of the headlines, Nvidia mentioned none of those things in its 90 minute presentation here, despite making chips that target them all. Not even its own Shield gaming device got a look-in.

"The Nvidia press conference is a teraflop," moaned one tech reporter on Twitter, after CEO Jen-Hsun Huang spent half an hour explaining the machine learning techniques that Nvidia's new Tegra X1 chip will use to power autonomous driving systems.

"Nvidia, are you making a car or can I go to bed?" demanded another impatient scribe.

It isn't making a car, and Sunday night's press conference probably won't be the most exciting we'll see at CES this week. But the focus on auto technology makes sense for Nvidia, whose powerful Tegra chips have been finding more success on the highway lately than in your pocket.

"That's where they're shipping most Tegra chips today, in automotive," said Jim McGregor, industry analyst at Tirias Research.

None of the big three tablet makers depend on Nvidia for their products, he noted. Apple makes its own CPUs, as does Samsung, although the Korean company uses Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors as well. And Amazon has no allegiance to any chip vendor for its Kindle.

That explains partly why Nvidia is doubling down on car technology at CES. It's gained an early lead in the market for powerful in car computing systems, and it's an area where it can differentiate itself from the competition.

The chip maker announced a new chip Sunday called the Tegra X1, which it says provides double the performance of its current Tegra K1. The X1 is based on Nvidia's newer Maxwell GPU architecture and is its first mobile chip to perform a trillion operations per second, or a teraflop of computing.

It will be used in two computing platforms for automobiles that were also unveiled Sunday. One, called Drive CX, will allow auto makers to design slick instrumentation panels that can change their surface texture with the touch of a button and make the driving experience look like the movie Tron.

The other, called Drive PX, ties two Tegra X1 chips together and provides the computational might to process images from a dozen external cameras around a car, analyzing the data to identify upcoming objects for driver assistance technologies and, eventually, self-driving cars.


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