CES 2020: Qualcomm decides the autonomous-driving party has begun

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A year ago, Qualcomm Inc. auto exec Patrick Little compared his semiconductor rivals’ previous CES promises of an autonomous-driving revolution with guests who arrived at a casual party too early and dressed in a tuxedo.

Apparently, CES 2020 is the time to break out that tux. 

Qualcomm QCOM, -1.10%  announced a full autonomous-driving system to compete with Nvidia Corp. NVDA, +0.17%  and Intel Corp.’s INTC, -0.56%  Mobileye on Monday at a CES Media Days news conference. The effort arrives at the annual trade show three years after Nvidia promised to have a Level 4 autonomous car on the market by 2020 — that has not happened — and four years after Mobileye promised significant autonomous revenue after 2020.

After years of such boisterous boosterism for fully autonomous cars arriving just around the corner, chip makers seemed to accept last year that cars will not be that automated in the near-term, largely focusing their announcements on advanced driver-assistance systems, or ADAS. Fully autonomous driving is still a work in progress, and that work still has not neared the Level 5 finish line.

From CES 2019: Tech finds a middle lane for autonomous cars at CES

Qualcomm, which dominates the wireless-chip market, has previously focused on connecting on-board systems and other component chips, as well as developing a standard for communications between cars and hubs. With Monday’s announcement, Qualcomm wraps many of those efforts with an on-board computer leveraging GPUs into a single offering called Snapdragon Ride, which is meant to support ADAS or — eventually — fully autonomous systems.

Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said Qualcomm is focused on ADAS — which suppliers have taken to calling “Level 2 Plus” — with Snapdragon Ride, but said it scales up to “Level 4 Plus.” Amon announced a partnership with General Motors Co. GM, -1.31%  on ADAS, with few additional details.

“This CES is an inflection point as we evolve … into ADAS with a multisegment approach all the way from Level 1 to Level 4,” Amon said at the news conference.

The chip maker said that it topped $600 million in automotive revenue in 2019, and expects to hit $1.5 billion annually in 2024. Amon declared that the pipeline of signed automotive deals was $7 billion, up from a previously stated $6.5 billion. That reflects slowing growth on that number, as Little told MarketWatch a year ago that the pipeline grew from $3 billion to $5.5 billion in 2018.

“Our technology has been a part of this road of transformation in the automotive sector for the past 15 years,” Amon said at the news conference, adding that 100 million cars are using Qualcomm technology.

Snapdragon Ride is expected to reach predevelopment with auto makers and parts suppliers by midyear and reach production by 2023. At the least, the offering can exhibit how some of Qualcomm’s components can be used in an autonomous system, improve Qualcomm’s software development and potentially help with adoption of its C2VX standard for communication.

However, the company appears to be well behind the early partyers in the self-driving space, who have spent years developing relationships and signing contracts with auto manufacturers and parts suppliers for autonomous hardware. At least they are attending the same party now.

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