Full Self-Driving Cars Could Arrive as Early as 2027, Thanks to This Chip

Arm, the company that powers almost all the smartphones in the world, is now planning to lead the self-driving revolution. The British company announced on Wednesday the Cortex-A76AE, designed from the ground-up to enable fully autonomous driving with safety as a top priority. Arm claims the holy grail of full-blown drive-anywhere autonomy could reach consumers by 2027.

“Many other predictions are based on the dates of first prototype deployments, not necessarily production deployments — we’re focused on enabling the real production of autonomous vehicles, and when these higher levels will be reached more widely,” Lakshmi Mandyam, VP Automotive at Arm, tells Inverse. “Our predictions are based on a combination of third-party analyst and industry insight. We do believe the combination of performance and safety provided by the Arm Cortex-A76AE is an important step in addressing the requirements of in-vehicle processing as we drive towards next levels of autonomy — by continuing to lead the way in safety with this new processor and our Safety Ready program, Arm is demonstrating its commitment to looking beyond prototypes to real, mass deployable solutions.”

It’s a big move from the company, which has technology in over 80 percent of global smartphones and 65 percent of advanced driver-assistance systems. Arm refers to the new chip as “the world’s first autonomous-class processor with integrated safety.”

“Safety is the highest priority for car makers we talk with, for both the obvious technology factors associated with autonomous systems controlling all aspects of driving, but also to ensure that human passengers can trust their automated driver,” Mandyam said in a statement. “If consumers don’t trust the autonomous systems in their cars are safe, then mass market acceptance of this technology will be slow to happen.”

The chip integrates safety with a split-lock system where two processing cores can run the same instructions at the same time for enhanced safety. It’s not a new idea, but it’s the first time it’s been used in an application processor. Split-lock means that the chip’s processor clusters can work in a “split” mode, with a number of processors working on separate tasks to increase performance, or in a “lock” mode for situations where checking each instruction is paramount.

The split-lock-based chip could help bring in the future waves of autonomous technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has suggested the company could offer cross-country autonomous driving with its next major update, while companies like Volkswagen and Toyota see level 4 cars hitting the roads around 2021. While this may be true on a technological level, trust is key to mass adoption: Mandyam describes the journey to full, level 5 autonomy, as “paved with prototypes, often based on power-hungry, expensive data center CPUs lacking even the most basic functional safety features.”

ARM's expectations for the coming years.ARM

These chips will need to crunch through a lot of data. The company notes that where a Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane requires only around 14 million lines of code, a future level 5 autonomous car will need somewhere around one billion lines of code. The A76AE will serve as the first product in Arm’s new autonomy roadmap, which will see the future release of the “Helios-AE” and “Hercules-AE” chips.

As for where you may see these chips first? The company produced a report earlier this year, in collaboration with Canalys, that suggested most level 4 vehicle launches will be robo-taxis. That means the likes of Waymo and Uber, both of which are working on such services, could become most drivers’ first experiences with these ultra-safe processors.

Arm is expected to discuss its new developments further at Arm TechCon, held on October 16 to 18 at the San Jose Convention Center.

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