Tesla is building its own AI chips for self-driving cars

“We’ve been in semi-stealth mode on this basically for the last 2-3 years,” said Elon Musk on an earnings call today. “I think it’s probably time to let the cat out of the bag…”

The cat in question: the Tesla computer. Otherwise known as “Hardware 3,” it’s a Tesla-built piece of hardware meant to be swapped into the Model S, X and 3 to do all the number crunching required to advance those cars’ self-driving capabilities.

Tesla has thus far relied on Nvidia’s Drive platform. So why switch now?

By building things in-house, Tesla say it’s able to focus on its own needs for the sake of efficiency.

“We had the benefit […] of knowing what our neural networks look like, and what they’ll look like in the future,” said Pete Bannon, director of the Hardware 3 project. Bannon also noted that the hardware upgrade should start rolling out next year.

“The key,” adds Elon “is to be able to run the neural network at a fundamental, bare metal level. You have to do these calculations in the circuit itself, not in some sort of emulation mode, which is how a GPU or CPU would operate. You want to do a massive amount of [calculations] with the memory right there.”

The final outcome, according to Elon, is pretty dramatic: He says that whereas Tesla’s computer vision software running on Nvidia’s hardware was handling about 200 frames per second, its specialized chip is able to crunch out 2,000 frames per second “with full redundancy and failover.”

Plus, as AI analyst James Wang points out, it gives Tesla more control over its own future:

By having its own silicon, Tesla can build for its own needs at its own pace. If they suddenly recognize something the hardware is lacking, they’re not waiting on someone else to build it. It’s by no means a trivial task — but if they can pull it off without breaking the bank (and Elon says it costs them “the same as the current hardware”), it could end up being a significant strength.

As for how they’ll get the chips into existing Teslas, Elon says: “We made it easy to switch out the computer, and that’s all that needs to be done. You take out one computer, and plug in the next. All the connectors are compatible.”