US Firms Rush To File Patents Ahead Of Driverless Car Boom 26/09/2017 by Bruce Gain for Intellectual Property Watch Leave a Comment Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)The socioeconomic impact driverless cars are expected to have is often compared to that of the internet, or going further back in time, to the industrial revolution. As fleets of vehicles that pilot themselves approach commercial rollout thanks to developments in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other technologies; original equipment manufacturers are aggressively filing patents for their self-driving vehicle designs. These players include General Motors and its Cruise Automation subsidiary, German automotive supplier Bosch, Ford, which owns a stake in driverless car start-up Argo AI; and Google sister company Waymo. Waymo self-driving car stopped at an intersection According to analyst firm Oliver Wyman, a total of 1,200 patents for connected and driverless car technologies were filed between 2012 and 2016. Out of those, one-third were filed by tech companies, while patents from Google and Audi accounted for the most during that period for connected and driverless cars, totalling 221 applications for Google compared to Audi’s 223. The patent filings are seen, in part, as a way to avoid having to licence technologies essential to offering driverless vehicles and parts. As an additional business case reason, patent holders can potentially cash in on a revenue stream from licensees that use their technologies as the market is expected to explode in the near future. According to Galland Research, the number of self-driving vehicles owned by individuals and car-sharing fleets is expected to total 10 million by 2020. At least one in four cars in use is forecasted to be driverless by 2030. For those firms that have not secured patent technology, licensing the tech will often be inevitable. “Any company that does not patent aspects of driverless tech will likely face the need to license that technology (probably from direct competitors) if they choose to enter the driverless tech market. Even if the company does not possess the totality of IP necessary to put a driverless car product on the road, as long as they have some critical IP to trade with others means they will not be totally disadvantaged,” Mark Turnage, CEO of OWL Cybersecurity, told Intellectual Property Watch. “Woe upon the company that as a precondition of competing has to go to their competitors to license the tools necessary to even begin to compete.” Market Dynamics Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have been actively developing self-driving systems for so-called Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4 driving systems ahead of what many observers expect will be the “driverless revolution.” Among models commercially available, Tesla’s Model S, X, and 3 allow for Level 2 driving, which means the driver can let the car do some self-driving along certain roads and streets, but must be ready to take back control of the car at all times. Audi’s recent launch of the new A8 was the first Level 3 car to go on sale in retail channels; the Audi A8 allows for limited hands-off driving at low speeds, while the driver has 10 seconds to resume control of the vehicle when prompted to drive the car. Ford and Volvo plan to launch Level 4 cars by 2021, which will require no input from the driver to travel from point A to point B. In the commercial fleet space, Waymo, Ford’s Argo AI, Uber, Cruise Automation, and Lyft are developing driverless ride-hailing services. Uber, Cruise Automation, and Lyft have already begun pilot programs in which customers are sometimes chauffeured in driverless cars, although a human driver must remain behind the wheel at all times to maintain compliance with existing laws and regulations. These cars, once they become available commercially, will be at least Level 4 and are expected to eventually have no steering wheels and gas and brake pedals. As Level 3 and more advanced driverless cars are set for large-scale rollout (which some say could happen within three years), high-profile patent applications published this year include: –A retractable conference table in the middle of a large car or van that seats the driver (once the car takes control) as well as passengers (Ford); –A module design that makes it easy to both add and remove the steering wheel and pedals for human drivers (Ford); –A driverless car that communicates with pedestrians and other cars with beeps and other signals (BMW); –(Waymo) A push-button console that replaces a car’s steering wheel and brake and gas pedals; –(Waymo) A driverless car designed to absorb the shock of a collision with a pedestrian; –(Bosch) A communication system used to guide cars parked remotely to a desired location; –(Volvo Cars) A system that calculates how much time a car can continue to self-pilot itself before a human driver must take control of the car over a set route, based on mapping, weather, road conditions, and other data; –(Cruise Automation) A driverless car system that locates and identifies passengers as part of a ride-hailing service. Hardware Centric One common thread among these patent filings is that they are hardware related, even though the major challenges associated with developing the requisite artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other capabilities for driverless technology are largely software based. In many ways, protecting driverless-related intellectual property by patenting the hardware instead of more complex software is easier to do. “Driverless cars, and especially fully autonomous cars, are poised to have a ripple effect through the economy and there are literally trillions on the table. So it is not surprising to see companies vying for control,” Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Columbia University, and co-author of “Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead,” told Intellectual Property Watch. “The challenge is, however, that autonomous cars are mostly software-enabled, so IP strategy is tricky, since software patents are difficult to obtain and even harder to enforce. So I think that we are seeing an attempt to protect more visible UI/UX/hardware aspects, like buttons and steering wheels, which is not the most innovative part of driverless cars, but it’s perhaps the easiest to protect.” However, one potential downside is that large companies that seek to patent technologies in development could potentially stifle competition by raising the barrier of entry for new players entering the field. “Patenting driverless vehicle and other emerging technology at a broad level could become a rat race where the largest firms, [Waymo], GM, etc., race to patent every conceptual design, even if they never plan to develop in those directions. Smaller firms and start-ups cannot compete and may be less able to contribute to these rapidly emerging fields, therefore, publicized patent battles could stymie consumer opinion of the technology,” James Scott, a senior fellow at ICIT (Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology), told Intellectual Property Watch. “Especially in highly-publicized, heavy-investment technology fields, such as driverless cars, patents may not apply to certain technologies. Firms may be unable to patent conceptual inventions and their attempts to patent broad theoretical products, such as ‘replacing a steering column in favour of pedals,’ may not be approved or withstand challenges in court.” Firms outside of the US may also use their location to skirt tighter US patent restrictions. “If a foreign nation-state desires a technology, a patent will not prevent their attempts to acquire that research,” Scott said. “While patents can deter a competitor from openly mimicking a technology, they cannot prevent or deter an actor from launching cyber-attacks to access product research or from attempting to subtly mimic the technology. Patents will not deter competitive development from emulators in foreign nations that do not respect patent law.” For a nascent sector with such potential, players’ patent strategies should embrace the long term to avoid the risks associated with over-patenting the related technology for driverless cars, Clive Longbottom, an analyst for Quocirca, told Intellectual Property Watch. “If any company patents their approach and refuses to make it available to everyone else, then we run the risk of different standards and data interfaces causing issues that could be fatal as different autonomous vehicles react to the same issues in different ways. This is one area where everything has to work together and has to ensure that if one vehicle’s response to a possible head-on collision scenario is to veer right, the other vehicle does not veer left, so ensuring that the collision does happen,” Longbottom said. ¨Sure, patent it, but also ensure that you enable licensing at a suitable level so that you create a viable market, rather than strangle it at birth,” he added. Meanwhile, the development and rollout of cars for private sales is taking place mostly in Japan and Europe as well as in the US, as the world’s largest carmakers look at world markets for their rollout. But for the development of driverless fleets for ride-hailing services, most of the advances are taking place in the US, as Waymo, Ford’s Lyft, and GM’s Cruise Automation demonstrate working prototypes for this application. For that, they now hold key hardware patents, at least in the United States. Image Credits: Grendelkhan/Wikimedia Commons Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Related Bruce Gain may be reached at email@example.com."US Firms Rush To File Patents Ahead Of Driverless Car Boom" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.