That’s Infotainment: Meet the Brains Behind Your Car’s Touchscreen

A Q&A with Danny Shapiro, the director of Nvidia’s automotive business.

If there once was no replacement for displacement, there’s now no replacement for processing power. At least, that’s what Danny Shapiro, director of Nvidia’s automotive business, would have you think. The California-based tech company—best known for the graphics processing technology that lives in millions of computers, tablets, and smart phones—supplies similar hardware for vehicle infotainment systems. Volkswagen Group, BMW, and Tesla are among its clients. We sat down with Shapiro last Wednesday on the sidelines of a telematics conference in Novi, Michigan. He reflected on the culture clash between computer and car companies—“We’re always, like, ‘Go, go, go!’ in terms of iteration”— and talked about what we might see next.

On why making hardware for cars is different—and harder—than for phones and computers:

It has to live in a harsh environment— -40 degrees Celsius to 80 degrees Celsius [-40 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit]. The quality cycle is just much more involved. People are used to bugs in phones and computers, not with their cars. And automakers pay dearly when they do have those problems.

On new, more modular chips that will enable automakers to keep pace with changes in consumer electronics:

Tesla has our Tegra 2 [a so-called “system on a chip” that features a central processor, a graphics processor, and memory on a circuit board about the size of a playing card]. It was able to switch from to our Tegra 3 and started shipping two weeks before Google and Microsoft. This modular approach makes it very easy to improve model year by model year.

On the importance of fast hardware for a better user experience:

Where [automakers] often get into trouble is when Purchasing is driving things, saying, “We want the nine dollar chip.” To do [infotainment] well, you need to render higher frame rates, higher resolution graphics. There’s a lot of value in hardware that has legs for future features and capabilities.

On Cadillac Cue (which isn’t powered by an Nvidia chip):

It’s slow, I know that.

On what infotainment features we might see in the future:

More kinds of transactions. You’ll be able to pay for gas from your car and reserve parking spots. You’ll have larger screens and head-up displays instead of tiny little icons.  More digital instrument clusters and letting users customize them.  Why not have, for instance, a vintage Corvette cluster? That could be something people are willing to pay for.

On people who don’t like interacting with vehicle infotainment systems:

I say, buy a Miata.

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