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Smartphone supplier Qualcomm muscles in on Nvidia’s turf with BMW self-driving chip deal

November 16, 2021, 10:04 PM UTC

Qualcomm just nabbed a prestigious deal to equip BMW cars with automated driving features, underlining the Android smartphone chipmaker’s ambition to expand into the automotive industry.

Chief Executive Cristiano Amon sees the revenue potential of its chips built into each car growing more than tenfold in the future. The company hopes that by integrating its silicon semiconductors into every corner of a vehicle, it can also muscle out its major competitor in the rapidly growing automotive chip market, graphics processor specialist Nvidia.

The two chipmakers are fierce rivals, and Qualcomm has attacked Nvidia’s planned acquisition of Softbank’s UK subsidiary, Arm, which licenses its proprietary chip design to both. The two rely heavily on Arm’s energy-efficient RISC architecture, which has surpassed Intel’s x86 as the dominant design in the semiconductor industry.

Qualcomm already supplies 36 different car brands, from newcomers like Tesla and Nio, to stalwarts including Cadillac and Mercedes. Their tech enables features such as vehicle connectivity that allows it to communicate with other cars and infrastructure, and premium in-car entertainment. 

But Qualcomm wants a bigger chunk of the market. Its planned acquisition of Veoneer’s Arriver self-driving software unit is an attempt to beef up its expertise in the area of automated vehicles. Qualcomm aims to enhance the appeal of its new dedicated automotive chipset, Snapdragon Ride, a processor powerful enough to assume many driving functions on its own.

“The automotive industry is going through an incredible pace of change, where the car companies are becoming tech companies, and we are well positioned at the intersection of all these trends,” Amon told analysts on Tuesday during an investor presentation.

Acquiring Arriver would allow Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Ride to compete directly with Nvidia’s Drive Xavier, found in the current XPeng P7 sedan, as well as the far more advanced Drive Orin that will be equipped in upcoming Mercedes-Benz and Volvo models

Under scrutiny

Nvidia is trying to gain a more permanent edge over its competition by acquiring Arm outright from Japan’s Softbank. The deal is controversial, since Arm’s neutrality is a key reason why it can license its technology out to a number of different chipmakers. 

That deal is now subject to an in-depth examination by the British government for national security reasons. In a statement sent to Fortune, Nvidia said it would continue to work with UK authorities to resolve concerns by demonstrating “that the transaction will help to accelerate Arm and boost competition and innovation, including in the UK.”

In BMW, Qualcomm has now won its first major customer for Snapdragon Ride. The German premium carmaker’s upcoming automated driving systems will be powered by Qualcomm technology rather than the Nvidia Drive Orin chipsets that will be equipped in Mercedes cars. 

While Amon was sparse on the details of Qualcomm’s prestigious deal, divulging neither the financial terms nor the timeframe of the supply contract, he said Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips would be used throughout a number of BMW models.

In a statement on Tuesday, BMW cited Qualcomm’s “breadth and depth of portfolio, as well as proven expertise in compute, connectivity, computer vision, advanced semiconductors and driver assistance technologies,” as the reason for awarding the contract to the company.

Qualcomm’s annual automotive revenue surged by half to nearly $1 billion in the fiscal 2021 year that ended on Sept. 26. The chipmaker forecast on Tuesday that this would grow to roughly $3.5 billion by fiscal 2026, thanks to a slew of deals already signed. In 10 years time, Quancomm said it expects that number to grow to $8 billion. 

“If you look at the valuation of the auto companies right now, and you look at the valuation of a company like Tesla, it’s very clear to every one of the OEMs [car company] that they are becoming a technology company,” Amon said, referring to the $1 trillion-plus market cap of Elon Musk’s company.

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