MADISON, Wis. — Does comparing Intel’s EyeQ 5 with Nvidia’s Xavier make sense? That is the question.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at his keynote presentation during Automobility LA on Nov. 29, 2017 (Source: Intel)
Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at his keynote presentation during Automobility LA on Nov. 29, 2017 (Source: Intel)

Nvidia and Intel are engaged in a specsmanship battle over AI chips for autonomous vehicles that reached a new high — or more accurately a new low — when Intel CEO Brian Krzanich recently spoke at an auto show in Los Angeles. Krzanich claimed that EyeQ 5 — designed by Intel subsidiary Mobileye — “can deliver more than twice the deep-learning performance efficiency" than Nvidia’s Xavier SoC.

Intel claimed that the Mobileye EyeQ5 SoC delivers 2.4 TOPS per watt for 2.4 times greater deep learning performance efficiency than Nvidia's Xavier during Automobility LA (Source: Intel)
Intel claimed that the Mobileye EyeQ5 SoC delivers 2.4 TOPS per watt for 2.4 times greater deep learning performance efficiency than Nvidia’s Xavier during Automobility LA (Source: Intel)

After the Intel CEO’s keynote, Danny Shapiro, Nvidia's senior director of automotive, called EE Times from L.A. and cried foul.

First, Shapiro explained that comparing the two chips with two different rollout dates on two different process nodes (Xavier on 16nm vs. EyeQ5 on 7nm) isn’t kosher. 

According to Shapiro, Xavier, which is “already in bring up now,” will be in volume production in 2019. Intel, in contrast, said that EyeQ 5 is “sampling in 2018, production/volume in 2020, and first customer car in 2021 (BMW iNext).”

Second, Shapiro pointed out that Nvidia’s Drive PX Xavier’s 30 watts of power consumption at 30 trillion operations per second (TOPS), quoted by Intel, is “for the entire system, CPU, GPU and memory, as opposed to just deep learning cores as in the EyeQ 5.”

Out of line
So, was it out of line for Intel to compare EyeQ5 to Xavier? 

“Of course it was,” said Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst at Tirias Research. But he sees an even a bigger issue in that “nobody is comparing a platform to a platform today,” in autonomous vehicle solutions. 

Indeed, just comparing the specs of the two SoCs alone seems almost silly without discussing what other chips — in addition to the said SoCs — are needed to complete a Level 4 or Level 5 autonomous vehicle platform. 

In our recent interview with Intel, the CPU giant revealed plans to unveil soon “a multi-chip platform for autonomous driving,” which will combine the EyeQ 5 SoC, Intel’s low-power Atom SoCs, and other hardware including I/O and Ethernet connectivity. But the company offered no details on TOPS or watts on the entire platform available yet.

Simply put, Xavier has a far more powerful AI engine than EyeQ5.

Mike Demler, senior analyst at the Linley Group, agreed. “Forget the process-node nonsense. To achieve Level 4/5, it starts with the TOPS of the neural-network engine and the compute performance of the CPUs,” he said. “Then you look at the power, because if you don’t have the performance, it really doesn’t matter.”

If so, why are the two giants fighting tooth and nail to one-up on each other with their SoC specs? The answer is that, while they are still in an early phase of the autonomous vehicle technology battle, neither company wants it said that their solution consumes too much power or is less capable than their rival.

This escalating specsmanship, however, speaks volume about Intel’s commitment to muscle back into the automotive chip market, noted McGregor.

McGregor reminded us that Intel was once the dominant supplier of microcontrollers to Ford Motors. Intel’s 8061 microcontrollers and its derivatives were reportedly used in almost all Ford automobiles built from 1983 to 1994. When Ford transitioned from Intel microcontrollers to Motorola, Intel lost presence in the automotive market. By 2005, Intel announced it would discontinue production of all its automotive microcontroller chips.

Now, Intel is counting on its $15 billion Mobileye acquisition to redeem itself in the automotive world.

Next page: L4/L5 cars need how much TOPS?