Intel sees new opportunities in auto industry

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

San Jose, Calif. — The numbers didn’t add up for Intel Corp. to stay heavily involved in the auto industry in the 1990s. But nearly two decades later, billions in potential revenues add up just fine and have the chipmaking giant back in the auto game in a big way.

Driving the company’s return in recent years is the lure of Big Data — the information that connected vehicles can sense, collect, sort, package and send to the Cloud, and eventually sell to all kinds of customers. One estimate puts the value of data collected by cars at $750 billion by 2030.

That’s too much money for any tech company to ignore. And it’s why the leading seller of computer chips over the past 20 years, once a supplier of micro-controllers in selected cars and trucks, has aligned itself with several partners to offer a turnkey driverless car system, capable of harnessing the data and monetizing it.

“Hopefully at the end of the day, you’ll believe... in this partner and collaboration strategy,” said Kathy Winter, vice president of Intel’s Automated Driving Group, welcoming press to the company’s new San Jose Innovation Center this week.

“And that you’ll believe that Intel is well-positioned to build on not only the in-car compute, but also this connectivity and network experience, and then finally thinking about the data center... when you put all of that together into a single solution.”

The highlight so far of Intel’s bid to get into the autonomous game was its March announcement the company would shell out $15.3 billion for Israel-based Mobileye NV, maker of on-board cameras and sensors for autonomous driving.

“At 4 terabytes of data per day, the average autonomous car will put out the data equivalent of approximately 3,000 people,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich wrote employees in an e-mail explaining the acquisition. “Put just 1 million autonomous vehicles on the road and you have the data equivalent of half the world’s population.”

That move has been bolstered by partnerships with others like Delphi Automotive PLC, BMW AG and Ericsson AB, each emerging as key players in the push to help automakers develop cars that drive themselves and on-board tools that capture data.

“The only way we’re going to solve this problem across the industry is not by ourselves but through working and picking the right players and partners,” Winter said.

Even Intel’s Innovation Center, based here in San Jose, was planned with an eye toward luring in more collaborators. Winter described it as “a place where “we can be close to potential partners, potential start-ups (and) close to OEM partners that have a presence out here in (Silicon Valley).”

In the 1990s, Intel officials were less optimistic about their place in the industry. For a company on the cutting edge of computer chip technology, it was all about new developments and constantly increasing processing speeds. Automakers, however, needed technology that would be in their vehicles for a decade or more.

Intel was faced with having to continue providing outdated technology over the lifetime of those vehicles and, ultimately, decided that was not going to be profitable.

Today, the prospect of improving vehicle technology is far simpler with the development of over-the-air software updating. And Intel isn’t the only chipmaker to notice.

Samsung, which is now challenging Intel as the global leader in chip sales, received approval this week to begin testing its own self-driving car in South Korea. Nvidia’s technology is currently being utilized by the likes of Tesla Inc. and Volvo Cars Ltd. And Qualcomm, already working with Volkswagen AG and Panasonic, awaits finalization of its $47 billion acquisition of semiconductor maker NXP.

“That acquisition is still in progress, but we expect to close in the second half of this year, likely in the fourth quarter of this year,” said Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm’s vice president of product management. “NXP is the number one automotive semiconductor (manufacturer).”

A March headline at had Intel “playing catchup with Nvidia and Qualcomm...” But it’s hardly playtime for the chip industry these days. Two years of declining global PC sales have companies looking for new revenue streams. And the urge to wind up on top of the autonomous-and-connected vehicle game has forced many tech and auto companies to crack open their wallets.

A year ago, General Motors Co. ponied up $1 billion for San Francisco-based Cruise Automation. And last month the automaker announced it would invest another $14 million in the start-up’s operations there.

Not to be outdone, Ford Motor Co. announced in February it would invest $1 billion in Argo AI over the next half-decade. The Pittsburgh company will help develop the brains of Ford’s self-driving cars.

Richard Wallace, director of the transportation systems analysis group at Ann Arbor’s Center for Automotive Research, described the positioning among companies as “interesting to watch.”

“Certainly, Intel paying 60 times earnings for Mobileye just strikes some as ridiculous,” he said. “And a billion dollars for Cruise Automation — a company that had no customers yet?

“We can’t even judge which one is worth it or not yet. The market is not even responding to objective fact. It’s responding to these gut instincts in some ways and peoples’ feelings about technology versus their feelings about more tangible items, about brakes and steering wheels.”