Mercedes-Benz and semiconductor giant Nvidia have inked a deal, joining forces to build “software-defined vehicles” across the German automaker’s entire fleet. From the entry-level to the high-end, all of Benz’s next-generation vehicles will be powered by standard Nvidia Drive AGX Orin technology, sensors and software starting in 2024.
Earlier this year, Nvidia launched its Nvidia Drive AGX Orin, a Herculean new vehicle architecture capable of powering everything from advanced driver-assistance systems to full, Level 5 autonomous driving from a system-on-a-chip (SoC). Mercedes-Benz isn’t the first to adopt the platform — that honor goes to Chinese EV startup Xpeng — but it is certainly the largest yet.
Mercedes-Benz will standardize Nvidia’s Orin platform and sensor suite for all of its next-generation vehicles. The automaker will also license the complete Nvidia Drive Software stack and together Nvidia and Mercedes-Benz will jointly develop AI-powered SAE level 2 and 3 automated vehicle applications — such as address-to-address automated driving — as well as automated parking functions (up to level 4).
“All kinds of applications will be shared with customers,” Nvidia Senior Director of Automotive, Danny Shapiro stated in a briefing prior to today’s announcement. “Even things that haven’t been invented yet — we’ll be building the headroom in a true ‘software-defined’ nature — will be able to be a part of a part of this vehicle experience.”
The “software-defined” nature alluded to by the two companies means that these cars will be “perpetually upgradeable” via continuous over-the-air updates, bringing improvements and new safety and convenience features throughout the lifetime of the vehicle. For example, a lane keeping system could get more sophisticated and reliable with each update. Since every Mercedes will eventually have the same hardware, processing power and sensors, upgrades and differences in function will then be “software-defined.” The only difference between a Benz with adaptive cruise control and one with, say, level 3 partial automation will be the software powering them.
Jensen Huang, founder and CEO of Nvidia, said, “Together, we’re going to revolutionize the car ownership experience, making the vehicle software programmable and continuously upgradeable via over-the-air updates. Every future Mercedes-Benz with the Nvidia Drive system will come with a team of expert AI and software engineers continuously developing, refining and enhancing the car over its lifetime.”
You’ll be able to make decisions about what features you want not just at the point of sale, but even months or years into ownership — even if you’re the second or third owner of the vehicle — with new features, refinements and updates coming online along the way. Some of these features will be free, some paid while others may be subscription-based. Like the phone in your pocket or the video game console beneath your TV, an Nvidia-powered Merc could conceivably improve with each software refinement, update and app download and end up better than it was when you bought it.
However, as a longtime phone and gaming enthusiast, I can’t help but be wary of paid and subscription-based updates. Will the “nickel-and-dime” microtransactions and expensive DLC that have become so pervasive in video games and app stores ruin car ownership as well? I had to ask.
“This is something we’re going to have to figure out,” said Bernhard Wardin, responsible for Autonomous Driving & AI Communications with Mercedes-Benz. “The last thing we want to do is put our customers in a position they don’t want to be in, because we want them to return to our brand and ecosystem.”
“There’s incredible value in the software,” added Shapiro, “and what we’ve seen time and time again — whether in the auto industry or other — is that people will pay for software that has value. It could be an autopilot; it could be some convenience app or other feature. There will be a range of things that come to the vehicle at no charge and some things that people will pay for, but we believe [customers] will not feel like they’re being nickel-and-dimed, but are very willing to pay for things that they’ve never had in a vehicle or aren’t available in any other vehicle on the market.”
Shapiro continues, “some of these things could [use a] subscription model, but there’s flexibility to deliver value to consumers in a way that makes sense for them. Maybe they only subscribe to a rarely used feature for a limited time. If it’s something they’d use all of the time, maybe they only pay once.”
Mercedes’ Wardin explains that while this “software-defined” paradigm mirrors the phone industry in many ways, the value scale and life cycle are very different. Where many upgrade their phone as often as annually, people tend to keep their cars for much longer.
“People usually don’t throw away a two-year old Mercedes,” Wardin asserts. “They usually drive it a little bit longer, maybe not 20 years, but certainly more than two. There will be less obsolescence after you drive [the car] off of the lot and it will keep its value for longer. We believe this technology — being absolutely, fundamentally updateable — will give our products more life and our consumers more reason to purchase one of our cars.”
The first Mercedes-Benz vehicle to benefit from this partnership will roll off the assembly line sometime in 2024. Mercedes hasn’t stated specifically which vehicle will kick off the revolution, but has committed that a rolling series of updates will eventually bring its entire lineup online powered by Nvidia silicon and software.
“This new platform will become an efficient, centralized and software-defined system in our future Mercedes-Benz vehicles,” said Ola Källenius, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz. “NVIDIA’s AI computing architecture will help us streamline our journey towards autonomous driving. These new capabilities and upgrades will be downloaded from the cloud, improving safety, increasing value and extending the joy of ownership for all Mercedes-Benz customers.”