A crop of domestic chip companies has emerged in China as Beijing strives to disconnect from America’s cutting-edge technology and manage the risks of sanctions, which have crippled Huawei’s lucrative smartphone business. In the red-hot space of autonomous driving, Chinese semiconductor companies, backed by venture capital, strive to provide the best alternatives to Nvidia and the like.
In a race to overtake their US counterparts, the Chinese chip companies are in an economic downturn 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 top candidates are still being funded. Robotics Horizons, founded by a Baidu deep learning veteran, just received a strategic round of state car maker Chery Automobile. The amount was not disclosed, but towards 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 seeking to challenge Nvidia’s primacy in making auto-grade chips. Black sesame has Raised $115 million so faraccording to public data.
So how does Horizon’s technology compare to Nvidia’s? Well, the American chip giant attracted a lot of attention last week when it unveiled Drive Thor, the next-generation car-grade chip designed to unite 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 delivers 254 TOPS of performance. TOPS measures a processor’s ability to compute a trillion floating point operations per second.
By comparison, Horizon Robotics’ most up-to-date system-on-chip, called Journey 5, offers up to 128 TOPS but also claims to be designed for Level 4 driving. The chip is expected to enter production in 2022.
The Chinese automakers are likely to find it difficult to pass on Nvidia’s state-of-the-art semiconductor, which is expected to significantly improve smart driving and entertainment capabilities in the car.
One of the first to sign up is Zeekr, the premium electric vehicle brand of Geely, the largest privately owned car manufacturer in China. Zeekr plans to deploy Drive Thor in 2025 when the chip goes into mass production.
As my colleague Rebecca noted earlier, Xpeng, a Tesla challenger from 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 and US-listed EV start-ups NIO and Li Auto.
While new US sanctions prohibit Nvidia from selling high-end data center chips to China, the US company said it can still ship automotive chips to Chinese customers.
We’re yet to see how Journey 5 fares in its home market, but Horizon claimed last year that the chip had already sparked interest from a number of local automakers, including SAIC Motor, Great Wall Motors, JAC Group, Changan Auto and BYD. The Beijing-based startup said it had shipped over a million units of its Journey series chips by the end of 2021.