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Self-Driving Cars May Just Be the Start

Irina Slav

The self-driving car race has been intensive, especially recently, with new partnerships being announced on a regular basis as tech companies team up with carmakers to stake a claim in what many see as the future of the transport industry.

There’s a constant flow of news from the self-driving car camp, from Tesla’s announcement that it will release its first entirely autonomous car later this year to reports that Uber’s self-driving car is failing spectacularly—and not only that, but allegations that it’s based on stolen tech from Google’s Waymo.

In the meantime, a relatively new entrant in the playing field made headlines. Computer chipmaker Nvidia announced at a recent conference in Austin, Texas, that it had created a car computer system capable of recognizing patterns and learning behaviors with impressive accuracy.

According to the senior director of the company’s automotive business department, Danny Shapiro, the computer learns from video game simulations of traffic and can make 24 trillion calculations per second. The top priority: safety.

The view that the future of transport will be very different from the present seems to be more or less unanimous. What remains unclear is how quickly and how successfully we will get to the stage where all cars—however many of them there are—will run autonomously on electricity. But what is clear is that a lot of companies want to get there first.

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It seems that gong it alone won’t work. Nvidia, for example, has teamed up with Bosch, which supplies Tesla’s self-driving cars with sensors and parts, to develop the supercomputer. Uber is working with Volvo. GM has poured $500 million in Lyft, an Uber rival, to work on an autonomous car.

Intel, another chipmaker, chose the M&A path by earlier this month acquiring smaller sector player Mobileye, which supplied hardware to Tesla before it switched to Nvidia. According to some, the $15.3-billion deal pits Intel against Nvidia directly, this time over self-driving cars.

Nvidia, however, is not just betting on cars. It also has a partnership with truck brand PACCAR to develop self-driving systems for larger vehicles. It seems this is the smart way, as transport experts argue that autonomous trucks will be a much bigger market than autonomous cars.

In fact, the trucking market is already big, and it relies heavily on humans, who are prone to mistakes and, of course, need salaries. The implications that self-driving trucks could have for the transportation industry are significant, especially given the fact that transport is an extremely competitive business, which, as of 2015, was worth $1.48 trillion.

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So, while Uber, Tesla, and Google focus on self-driving sedans, Nvidia may be doing the smarter thing, separating its eggs into two baskets, more so in light of expert opinions that self-driving trucks are easier to program, hence quicker to bring to market.

The benefits are impressive enough: road safety, lower costs for freighters, and better logistics due to the elimination of the human factor. Nvidia and PACCAR’s truck is already capable of driving autonomously and being its own fallback, but only in certain driving modes. It may be a good idea for other players in the self-driving field to start paying attention to trucks.

It’s worth noting that the idea of fully autonomous trucks may very well wreak havoc in the transportation industry, leading to millions of job losses. This, however, is only a remote possibility for now: Nvidia has suggested that the PACCAR autonomous truck will still need a human driver, without elaborating.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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