Is RISC-V on the Road to Automotive Dominance?

By Ken Briodagh

Senior Technology Editor

Embedded Computing Design

September 08, 2023


Is RISC-V on the Road to Automotive Dominance?

RISC-V is the hot thing in embedded these days, it seems, with news hitting every day. We’ve looked at some of the key tools and players in the RISC-V space, and even seen several major players make moves this week.

One of the bigger announcements in RISC-V news we’ve seen recently came from a recent partnership between some of the biggest automotive chip suppliers. According to this announcement, Infineon, Nordic Semiconductor, NXP Semiconductors, Qualcomm, and Robert Bosch have jointly invested in a new company based in Germany with the goal of advancing global RISC-V adoption.

It seems that the venture will act as an accelerator for the “commercialization of future products based on the open-source RISC-V architecture,” the release stated.

Now, nominally, the group is open to exploring all sorts of industries ripe for RISC-V, but this particular grouping begs the question: Is the automotive industry getting ready to move? Will the automotive OEMs, dare I say, take a… RISC?

Research group Semico thinks the global automotive market is ready. According to a recent report from the firm, the interest in RISC-V stems partially from the semiconductor supply chain shortages that have been occurring for nearly 5 years now.

"Against this backdrop of architectural and functional exploration are the current supply problems of semiconductors aimed at automotive applications," said Rich Wawrzyniak, Principal Analyst for SoC and ASIC Research at Semico. "In order to secure a steady supply of the semiconductors needed to produce their vehicles in a timely manner, most, if not all, of the automotive manufacturers have embarked on creating their own internal SoC design groups with the intention of using the silicon foundry network to supply the parts."

Those internal SoC groups will certainly be looking at RISC-V as an option, and with the new German supergoup of chipmakers in play, that option will look even more viable. 

Bill Stewart, Vice President of Automotive Americas Marketing at Infineon, is optimistic about the possibilities for RISC-V.

“We see RISC-V as a potential alternative for future CPU core roadmaps. Obviously, we’re making an investment in it, so we see it as viable,” he said. “The automotive OEMs are going to a software-defined vehicle architecture. They’re all investing a lot in software right now.”

As they move into creating their own software and hardware, automotive OEMs are looking for reliable, certifiable standards, and RISC-V is diligently offering one that is paired with being an open architecture— and all the customization and (potential) cost-savings that go along with it.

RISC-V International, the organization driving RISC-V adoption and standardization globally, has been preparing to bring the automotive industry inside. In a blog post  from March, it specifically calls out how the technology is suited to carmakers’ needs. “Designers can leverage RISC-V in creating Systems-on-Chips (SoCs) for automotive applications that not only meet performance/cost/power requirements, but also have a high degree of code portability.”

The post goes on to advocate for RISC-V in safety systems like Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicles, in addition to in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems that are becoming ever-more sophisticated with advanced displays, connectivity, over-the-air updates, personalized experiences, and even gaming.

It’s not only the chipmakers that are getting in on the action, either. Lars Bergstrom, Director of Engineering at Google, announced in 2022 that Google will support RISC-V in Android ecosystems. And if you look into the existing RISC-V ecosystem, the major players have been building and getting loaded up for quite some time.

As an example, SiFive and IAR have partnered to target automotive with the mating of the SiFive RISC-V Automotive CPU IP and the IAR toolchain, which together offer a set of pre-certified development tools that can ease the rigorous certification process in the automotive sector.

It's not all settled yet, though. “There’s still a lot to work out and a lot of uncertainty,” Stewart said. The main challenge, as he sees it, will be getting standardization established. “There are a lot of potential applications for RISC-V, and we can’t have RISC-V implementations coming from a bunch of different places. That not standardization.”

The interest and investment are certainly there on the embedded technology side, but the major OEMs have not been as vocal. No major manufacturer has announced a move to RISC-V yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Is automotive ready for RISC-V? Hard to say, but it can’t be denied that the RISC-V players are eager to hit the road.

Ken Briodagh is a writer and editor with two decades of experience under his belt. He is in love with technology and if he had his druthers, he would beta test everything from shoe phones to flying cars. In previous lives, he’s been a short order cook, telemarketer, medical supply technician, mover of the bodies at a funeral home, pirate, poet, partial alliterist, parent, partner and pretender to various thrones. Most of his exploits are either exaggerated or blatantly false.

More from Ken