(Image courtesy of BMW).

Intel Closes Mobileye Deal, Punching Ticket into Computerized Cars

In March, Intel said that it would acquire Mobileye in a move that immediately raised its profile in the self-driving car market. It sought to deepen its foothold in a field that rivals like Nvidia seemed to be running away with.

Intel punched its ticket with $15.3 billion that it finished paying Mobileye’s shareholders on Tuesday. Amnon Shashua, one of Mobileye’s founders, will be chief executive and chief technology officer of a new business unit centered on Mobileye and focused on self-driving cars.

Since its founding 18 years ago, Mobileye has supplied chips for more than 15 million cars with front-facing cameras. It sells to most major automakers. It has partnered with Intel on self-driving cars manufactured by BMW and systems from automotive supplier Delphi that could offer intelligence to less expensive cars and trucks.

Mobileye’s silicon can interpret camera images, which enable functions like blind spot warnings and lane change assist on highways. But it also makes software for pooling images into digital road maps that inform entire fleets of vehicles on everything from traffic conditions to potholes.

To compete with rivals further along in the self-driving race, Intel has opened its wallet. It muscled into Audi’s first model with Level 3 autonomous driving – allowing drivers to hand over the wheel in certain situations while being ready to take back control – only after striking deals.

Audi’s chipset for autonomous driving includes a switch based on technology from Altera, which Intel acquired for $16.7 billion just six months after the zFas board was announced in 2015. Altera’s FPGAs also serve as accelerators in Intel’s self-driving development platform Go.

That switch sits between a graphics chip from Nvidia that acts like the car’s brains and a separate processor for sensor fusion. That additional silicon, supplied by Mobileye, makes sense of data streaming from front-facing cameras as well as radar and lidar sensors.

That represents only part of Intel’s inheritance in recent years. It also supplies the VXWorks operating system in the electronic control unit that handles Audi’s safety critical functions. The embedded software comes courtesy of WindRiver, which Intel acquired for $884 million in 2009.

Mobileye plans to sample more sophisticated chips for autonomous highway driving to General Motors, BMW, and Volkswagen in 2018. The EyeQ5 processor will run software that determines how to react to driving situations, pedestrians, and other vehicles, known as “driving policy.”

On Wednesday, Intel said that it would build a fleet of fully autonomous cars – also known as Level 4 – that combine Intel’s chips for cloud connectivity and central processing with Mobileye’s image processors and mapping software. The platform will help cars make split-second decisions on the road.

The first cars will be deployed later this year for testing in the United States, Israel, and Europe. “Geographic diversity is very important as different regions have very diverse driving styles as well as different road conditions and signage,” said Shashua. The fleet will eventually have more than 100 vehicles.

Intel also announced on Tuesday that Ziv Aviram, one of Mobileye’s founders and its chief executive, will retire. He is moving onto another company he started, OrCam, which makes cameras that help the visually impaired understand text and identify objects. He originally planned to stay after the acquisition.

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