SAIC Motor, the biggest automaker in China, will use processors for its self-driving cars from a domestic chip startup, throwing its weight behind a young upstart as Beijing accelerates plans to replace foreign-made chips with homegrown.

Why it matters: For one of the world’s biggest automakers to gamble a major strategic push on a young and relatively untested chipmaker signals the importance that Beijing places on rapid acceleration of self-reliance in advanced chips.

  • Horizon Robotics lacks a global reputation compared with larger rivals such as Nvidia and Mobileye. In August 2019, it launched the Journey 2, its first auto chip to meet global auto stress-test standards, and began shipments in March.

Details: SAIC, China’s largest automaker and Volkswagen’s manufacturing partner, will use processors and software from Horizon Robotics, a rising Chinese chipmaking startup, for its upcoming car models that include advanced driver-assisted capabilities, according to a joint announcement released Monday (in Chinese).

  • The state-owned auto manufacturer will also collaborate with the chipmaker to build and mass produce its next-generation, highly autonomous driving technology that is finally “capable of competing with Tesla’s full self-driving (FSD) capability,” the statement said (our translation).
  • The company is valued at around RMB 30 billion ($4.64 million), a 50% increase compared with early 2019, and is eyeing a public listing on China’s Nasdaq-style STAR Market later this year, persons close to the company told TechNode.
  • A company spokeswoman declined to comment on the valuation and the public offering when contacted by TechNode on Monday.

Context: SAIC is among a list of state-backed automotive majors now shifting towards Horizon Robotics as a domestic source for semiconductors. The chipmaker is considered to be China’s only alternative to global chip-making giants for auto processors.

  • US sanctions of Chinese technology giants including Huawei, as well as a pandemic-fueled global chip shortage, is renewing Beijing’s urgency to cultivate a domestic chip sector by 2025.
  • Carmakers are receiving state support. The Shanghai municipal government announced (in Chinese) Saturday that it is partnering with Horizon Robotics to establish its global research and development center in the city in an effort to accelerate the development and adoption of China-made central processing units for intelligent vehicles.
  • In an interview with Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) last month, Horizon Robotics vice president Zhang Yufeng said that it is currently the only Chinese chipmaker with computing platforms for mass-produced vehicles.
  • The company said recently that it shipped 160,000 of its Journey 2 artificial intelligence chips, which it boasts is more power efficient than Nvidia’s offerings, to Chinese automakers including SAIC, Changan, and Chery as of December, nine months after shipments began. It has outsourced production of its processors to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) since 2017.
  • Journey 5, its next chip model for advanced self-driving functions, is scheduled to launch before June and ship in 2022. Its computing power is expected to reach 96 trillion operations-per-second (TOPs), higher than the 72 TOPS of Tesla’s FSD computer.
  • The company has an annual shipment goal of more than 1 million units this year.
  • The five-year-old startup announced earlier this month that it had closed its $900 million Series C from investors including China’s State Development & Investment Corporation (SDIC), China’s biggest EV maker BYD, as well as Great Wall Motor.
  • Competition with Tesla’s advanced self-driving capabilities is a catalyst for many Chinese AV manufacturers, and SAIC is no exception.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the Journey 2 was Horizon Robotics’ first auto chip instead of the company’s first auto chip to reach global stress test standards.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen