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AI chips for smart cars spell new opportunities

By FAN FEIFEI | China Daily | Updated: 2021-10-27 09:24

Visitors check out Horizon Robotics chips during an auto expo in Shanghai in April. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Experts highlight collaboration along industry chain amid global shortage

Artificial intelligence-powered chips for smart vehicles are poised to usher in new development opportunities, as the commercialization of self-driving technologies is revving up in China and domestic demand for intelligent chips is surging amid a global shortage of semiconductors, industry experts said.

The experts highlighted collaboration among carmakers, auto part manufacturers and chip suppliers and called for more independent innovation to establish a relatively complete chip industry chain system.

Horizon Robotics-a Chinese AI chip startup-is stepping up efforts to develop smart chips for autonomous driving.

"The auto industry has fully entered the intelligent stage. Being in the center of the stage, we believe that only by embracing new ideas and with an innovative mentality can we seize the opportunity of this industrial transformation," said Yu Kai, founder and chief executive officer of the company.

Horizon Robotics has become one of the three companies across the globe that can mass-produce intelligent chips for the automotive industry. As of September, the shipment of its Journey series chips reached more than 500,000 units, said Yu, who also expected the penetration rate of driver assistance systems in the auto market to reach 70 percent by 2025.

In July, the company unveiled its latest automotive-grade AI processor Journey 5, designed for L4 autonomous driving, with up to 128 tera operations per second (TOPS) of AI computing power on a single chip. Level 4 autonomy means the car can drive by itself in most conditions without a human driver.

Eight Chinese carmakers including Great Wall Motors, SAIC Motor, Changan and BYD have shown their interest in the Journey 5 chip.

In the meantime, Beijing-based Horizon released its real-time operating system TogetherOS, and will fully open it to partners along the automotive industry chain.

Founded in 2015, Horizon Robotics develops next-generation technology for smart vehicles by integrating hardware and software, including its proprietary edge AI processors, algorithms and development toolkits.

Earlier this month, the company signed agreements with German auto parts giant Continental to establish a joint venture. It will focus on providing hardware and software integrated solutions for advanced driver assistance systems and automated driving.

"Horizon Robotics has gained an upper hand in self-driving chip design, algorithm and computing power, and it has carried out deeper cooperation with domestic auto manufacturers in an attempt to build an autonomous driving ecosystem," said Zhang Xiang, a researcher at the Automobile Industry Innovation Research Center, which is part of the North China University of Technology in Beijing.

Zhang said Horizon Robotics might overtake international rivals including Nvidia and Mobileye in the future, considering the rapid development of self-driving vehicles that have boosted the growing demand for related auto chips. "More efforts should be made to improve the country's chip manufacturing capacities."

Statistics from Soochow Securities said the revenue of self-driving chips in China will reach 7.5 billion yuan ($1.2 billion) in 2024, with a growth rate of 35 percent to 65 percent in the 2019-2024 period.

A report from market tracker Mordor Intelligence said the global automotive semiconductor market was valued at $48.13 billion in 2020 and is expected to be worth $129.17 billion by 2026, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 17.94 percent from 2021 to 2026.

Automotive chips are an important component in the auto industry. In the first half of the year, a serious shortage of global auto chips triggered a supply-demand imbalance in the domestic market.

Luo Junjie, spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said at a news conference last week the chip shortage is still having a significant impact on the auto industry in China, but the situation will ease in the fourth quarter.

Dong Yang, co-chairman of the China Automotive Chip Industry Innovation Strategic Alliance, said at present, China relies on imports for auto chips. "Although China accounts for more than 30 percent of global sales of cars, it only produces less than 2 percent of the auto chips across the globe."

To some extent, the chip shortage will affect supply chain security, Dong said. "The country's automobile industry has entered a stage of innovation and development. The most important work is to build an industrial ecosystem suitable for the development of the automotive chip industry."

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