SPADE: Sparse Pillar-based 3D Object Detection Accelerator for Autonomous Driving

3D object detection using point cloud (PC) data is essential for perception pipelines of autonomous driving, where efficient encoding is key to meeting stringent resource and latency requirements. PointPillars, a widely adopted bird's-eye view (BEV) encoding, aggregates 3D point cloud data into 2D pillars for fast and accurate 3D object detection. However, the state-of-the-art methods employing PointPillars overlook the inherent sparsity of pillar encoding where only a valid pillar is encoded with a vector of channel elements, missing opportunities for significant computational reduction. Meanwhile, current sparse convolution accelerators are designed to handle only element-wise activation sparsity and do not effectively address the vector sparsity imposed by pillar encoding. In this paper, we propose SPADE, an algorithm-hardware co-design strategy to maximize vector sparsity in pillar-based 3D object detection and accelerate vector-sparse convolution commensurate with the improved sparsity. SPADE consists of three components: (1) a dynamic vector pruning algorithm balancing accuracy and computation savings from vector sparsity, (2) a sparse coordinate management hardware transforming 2D systolic array into a vector-sparse convolution accelerator, and (3) sparsity-aware dataflow optimization tailoring sparse convolution schedules for hardware efficiency. Taped-out with a commercial technology, SPADE saves the amount of computation by 36.3--89.2\% for representative 3D object detection networks and benchmarks, leading to 1.3--10.9$\times$ speedup and 1.5--12.6$\times$ energy savings compared to the ideal dense accelerator design. These sparsity-proportional performance gains equate to 4.1--28.8$\times$ speedup and 90.2--372.3$\times$ energy savings compared to the counterpart server and edge platforms.

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