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With Tesla, Nvidia Aims for New Market

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Leave it to cooler-than-thou electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors (s TSLA) to know its chips. Tesla announced this morning that it will use two Nvidia (s nvda) Tegra chips to power the 17-inch screen and the instrument cluster for Tesla’s next-gen electric sedan: the Model S. These are sexy chips for a sexy car.

Tesla says the Model S’s 17-inch touch screen will be the largest display ever in a car, and will feature 3-D graphics. The Model S will use one Tegra chip for the infotainment and navigation information for the screen, and one Tegra chip for the instrument cluster, which will also have 3-D graphics and will display information about the vehicle’s performance.

As GigaOM has written, Nvidia’s Tegra line is about as good as it gets for mobile application processing that requires heavy graphics, and because it’s geared for mobile, it uses less power. Tesla notes the chip’s “exceptional energy efficiency,” is “a critically important feature for electric cars,” which are powered solely by batteries and need to conserve energy for driving the car. The more energy siphoned into accessories in EVs, the smaller the range of the vehicles.

Nvidia Co-founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang told us in an interview back in 2008:

You have to deliver these elements with almost no power. If you boil it down to where the CPU, the GPU, and all the individual processors dissipate almost no energy so you could wind it up like a wristwatch or recharge it with the temperatures of your skin, you could make a mobile computing device that fits in your pocket. So we started with a blank sheet of paper and five years later we have Tegra.

Nvidia has been trying to use Tegra to crack the cell phone market since 2008, but with competitors Qualcomm (s qcom) and Texas Instruments (s txn) it had a hard time gaining ground. That may be changing. Recently leaked photos of a high-end handset from LG and rumors of an Nvidia-powered tablet from Motorola Mobility (s mmi) indicate the Tegra 2 chip is finally finding its way into consumer products.

But Tesla’s Model S is no cell phone. The $50,000 car might be less expensive than Tesla’s inaugural $100,000+ Roadster, but it still will splurge on all the niceties and high-end options that Tesla’s brand has become known for. The Model S also won’t go on sale until late 2012 or early 2013, and will initially be sold in smallish volumes (compared to cell phones).

Despite the fact that the car is years from the market, expect to continue to hear about all the bells and whistles of it ad nauseam over the next two years. And for Nvidia, this may be its chance to conquer a new market before its rivals migrate over from the cell phone space.

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Image courtesy of Jurvetson.

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