The first computer chips designed to control a completely driverless car are set to hit the streets for a trial in Germany next year, with a test vehicle that follows a human delivery driver around.

The system, developed by US chipmaker Nvidia, is set to extend the company’s lead over Intel and other rivals in one of the industry’s most important development areas.

However, Nvidia executives said the technology was likely to be used only in very restricted circumstances at first, and that it would take time for road safety regulations and software to catch up with the advances in hardware.

Nvidia announced the new system on Tuesday at an event in Germany, along with a trial in the second half of next year by Deutsche Post DHL. The logistics company is set to equip a fleet of electric delivery vans with sensors and the new chips.

The US company said the chips were the first designed for the top “Level 5” category of autonomous vehicles, which will be built without steering wheels, brake and accelerator pedals and other human controls. The most advanced technology in use today is Level 2, which can do things such as changing lanes and auto-parking but still requires a human to be ready to take back control at any time.

Nvidia’s latest chip, called Pegasus, represents “the end-game for self-driving cars,” said Patrick Moorhead, a chip analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. It “gives Nvidia a leg up in the race to full autonomy”.

A practical version of Level 5 would require a solution for the huge, power-hungry computers that are packed into today’s test vehicles. The new Nvidia system will come “in a form factor the size of a licence plate,” said Danny Shapiro, the executive in charge of automotive at Nvidia.

The new system is designed to eventually handle up to 320 trillion operations per second (TOPS), compared to the 24tn of today’s technology. That would give it the power needed to process the masses of data produced by a vehicle’s cameras and other sensors and allow it to drive completely autonomously, Nvidia said. The first systems to be tested next year will have less processing power, but will be designed to scale up with the addition of extra chips.

Nvidia’s expertise in graphical processing units, or GPUs, has given it an early lead in developing artificial intelligence and has helped to drive its stock market value up to more than $110bn, a six-fold increase since the start of last year.

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