Chipmakers can't get enough exposure to the automotive market these days, but the best acquisition targets are not always so clear.
Qualcomm's (QCOM) recent $47 billion acquisition of NXP Semiconductors (NXPI) and Renesas Electronics' $3.2 billion purchase of Intersil (ISIL) in September underscore the appeal of automotive semiconductors.
While both targets have broader portfolios of products, Qualcomm and Renesas specifically cited the appeal of their automotive chip businesses. Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek has thrown its hat in the ring, saying that it will look for acquisitions in the automotive sector. And Intel (INTC) and others could seek to boost their presence in the market as cars get smarter and more connected.
The catch is that buying automotive chips also means buying a lot of other stuff.
"There are companies that are seeing a higher and higher percentage of their revenue exposed to automotive every year," said Stifel, Nicholas analyst Tore Svanberg said. "But there is no real pure play automotive chip company out there."
NXP stood out because it had recently merged with Freescale, he added, boosting its position in cars to about 35% of revenues.
"For all of those companies, automotive is not more than 20% to 25% of revenue." Svanberg said. "Intel is the largest semi company on the planet, and they don't have much auto exposure today."
Microchip, which gets close to 20% of its sales from the auto sector, could be an interesting target for Intel, Svanberg suggested. Neither company responded immediately to a query on Monday.
Both Intel and Microchip have historically had strength in manufacturing chips. "From that perspective they come from the same DNA," the analyst said.
In addition to its presence in cars, Svanberg said that Microchip has done well in the broader Internet of Things. "That is another great growth industry that Intel has already said they want to be part of," the analyst said.
Intel paid $16.7 billion last year for Altera, which develops technology for data centers and the Internet of Things.
Connected cars are definitely on Intel's radar. The company's new A3900 chips are geared towards auto applications, and Intel held an "autonomous driving day" presentation for analysts in August.
"We're hearing that autonomous vehicles will revolutionize the way that we live and the way that we work," said Douglas Davis, general manager of Intel's Internet of Things Group. "But then realize, of course, that we've been saying the same thing about the Internet of Things, and how the Internet of Things will transform the way that we live and work over the coming decade."
Intel has options for developing its automotive chips business on its own, or acquiring operations.
If Intel or other chip makers choose the latter route, they'll likely have to buy other lines of business that may not be as appealing.
"I don't think any given company would like to sell only their automotive business because that is the most attractive part of their portfolio," Stifel's Svanberg said. "Companies these days are much more willing to sell computing assets or handsets assets. The auto side is kind of the crown jewel."