For many years, ARM licensees such as Qualcomm, Infineon, NXP, and Bosch have explored the potential of the disclosed RISC-V instruction set architecture. The companies mentioned are now founding a joint venture in Germany with Nordic Semiconductor, which is still to be named.
The timing of the announcement of the project should not be a coincidence, because according to speculation, ARM plans to go public next September and hopes for a market value of around 60 billion US dollars. In 2017, the Japanese group SoftBank bought ARM for around 30 billion US dollars.
ARM is currently conducting a legal dispute over license terms against its key customer Qualcomm. Qualcomm is one of the largest developers of processors for smartphones and for car infotainment and driver assistance systems (ADAS). The founding of the new RISC-V company in Germany therefore sends a clear signal against ARM.
Logos of the five founding members of the new European RISC-V company.
Bosch and Infineon do not yet sell chips with RISC-V cores, but are collaborating in RISC-V development projects such as Scale4Edge. NXP already has the RV32M1 RISC-V “experimental balloon” on the market. As one of the leading automotive chip manufacturers, Renesas already offers several RISC-V chips.
SoftBank originally wanted to sell British CPU developer ARM to Nvidia, but the deal fell through, largely because key ARM customers opposed it. ARM, on the other hand, is in a difficult phase: on the one hand, the company is successful, but on the other hand, it is currently looking for concepts for further growth in order to finance the high development costs.
For example, the legal dispute with Qualcomm made it known that ARM wants to collect more license fees by not only paying chip developers like Qualcomm but also their customers, such as the manufacturers of smartphones and car electronics. In addition, according to speculation, ARM could use the money from the IPO to set up its own hardware development division, whose chips would compete with the products of the licensees.
So far, RISC-V cores have mainly been used as 32-bit drives in microcontrollers or as embedded controllers in other chips. There are only a few Linux-capable 64-bit RISC-V SoCs with the minimum specification RV64GC. However, the “RISC-V Software Ecosystem” (RISE) initiative has already been founded under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation Europe to promote the software ecosystem for RISC-V chips.
Some larger Linux distributions support the few affordable RV64GC platforms such as the StarFive VisionFive 2. The EU, in turn, supports several RISC-V development projects, including the European Processor Initiative (EPI), in which car manufacturers are also involved.
For many automotive applications, it is essential that RISC-V chips can be certified according to relevant specifications such as ASIL-D for functional safety.
The automotive chip manufacturers STMicroelectronics (STMicro) and Texas Instruments (TI) are ARM licensees and strategic members of the RISC-V Foundation, but have so far not publicly shown any RISC-V activities. The Chinese manufacturer Gigadevice, which supplies STM32-like microcontrollers, has also been offering RISC-V variants for some time.
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