Qualcomm's new chip will turn your next car into a self-driving theater on wheels

Qualcomm CES
Qualcomm introduced a new Snapdragon processor for automobiles at CES in Las Vegas Credit: James Niccolai

The Snapdragon 820A will run multiple displays and car safety systems simultaneously

Qualcomm unwrapped a new family of Snapdragon processors at CES that threaten to turn your car into something that feels more like a fairground than a mode of transport.

The chip maker showed its Snapdragon 820A driving a mock-up car interior with four HD displays -- two for the driver and two for passengers in the back -- and a digital animated dashboard. The same chip powers cameras inside and outside of the car, analyzes road conditions to assist with driving, and provides a download link as fast as 600M bits per second, according to Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf.

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf James Niccolai

Steve Mollenkopf at CES on Tuesday.

New auto technologies have dominated the first days of CES, and Qualcomm hopes to capitalize on the smarts and connectivity that car makers are packing into their vehicles. Whether anyone wants all this technology -- or will be able to afford it when they buy a new car -- seems beside the point here in Vegas. For now, it's about taking it all in.

Cameras near the steering wheel detect the orientation of the driver's head. "If Jeff looks sideways for more than a moment, he's considered distracted," said a Qualcomm engineer who demonstrated the technology. Presumably that triggers an alert to get the driver back on track.

Cameras outside the car keep an eye on surrounding traffic, so the vehicle can brake or swerve if they get too close. The 820A is programmed to detect multiple lane types, Qualcomm says, and it will run machine-learning algorithms for driver assistance technologies that recognize speed limits, traffic lights and other road signs.

The processors are similar to Qualcomm's upcoming Snapdragon 820 chips for smartphones, Mollenkopf said, but adapted for automobiles. 

Drivers can customize the animated dashboard so it will show the colors and dials they like best. If you share a car with a partner, it can recognize each driver by their smartphone and display their custom dash when the car starts up.

It will be up to individual auto makers to decide which of these features to include and how to implement them.

None of the technologies are exactly new by themselves -- Nvidia showed similar things at last year's CES -- but Mollenkopf said the 820A is a single chip that can perform all the functions, making it more affordable for car makers to include them all.

The processor integrates numerous components in one package, including Qualcomm's Kryo CPU, Adreno 530 graphics chip, Hexagon 680 DSP, and Zeroth machine-learning software. The chip comes in two versions, one of which has an X12 LTE modem that can download data at up to 600 Mbps so passengers can stream HD movies.

The chip is sampling to auto makers now, Qualcomm says, so it might make its way into 2018 models. Audi is using Qualcomm's existing Snapdragon 620 parts in some of its 2017 vehicles.

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