Autonomous Vehicles – An IP Perspective

This year Tesla announced its new car, the Model 3, which comes with Autopilot. This aids the driver by automatically steering, changing lanes and adjusting speed in response to traffic. It includes Tesla’s “Summon” feature which allows cars to drive themselves without anyone inside. This is a major leap towards the driverless car which Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, says is only two years away. There is a considerable amount of R&D activity happening across the car industry and major, new, non-traditional players have entered the autonomous vehicle space. We are witnessing a convergence of auto, computing, data and telecommunications technologies as companies from a range of technology areas collaborate to make advancements in autonomous vehicles.  Technologists recognise this as a disruptive change and the IP landscape provides a window into the progress currently being made.

Why are Autonomous Vehicles the future?

Firstly, safety. According to a report from the Department for Transport, human error accounts for over 90% of collisions in the UK.  Most could potentially be prevented if cars were driverless. In a talk by Chris Urmson, Head of Google’s AV programme, he noted that reducing the number of people dying on the roads is their key selling point and so far Google’s AVs have an impressive safety record with only 17 minor accidents in more than 2 million miles of driving. However, software improvements can be expected following a Google AV being stopped by police for being overly cautious and more recently when one of their cars hit a bus.

Secondly, AVs offer benefits for the environment. Cars are one of the main contributors to global CO2 emissions. The ability to use ‘trains’ of AVs reduces drag thereby saving fuel and AVs are more efficient at driving than humans. A number of the AVs under development are electric and these have smaller carbon footprints than petrol or diesel vehicles.

Other benefits include personalised transport for the disabled, more productive commutes, and fewer parking problems since AVs can park themselves out of town when they are not needed and return themselves when summoned.

New players

Rarely has an industry been influenced by so many outside and over the top (OTT) players. The potential benefits of autonomous vehicles and all the necessary elements that go into a vehicle to make it autonomous have brought a lot of non-traditional players to the automotive industry. The history of the auto industry is one of consolidation and the cost of entry has traditionally been seen to be too high, but Apple and Google can well afford to enter and have the incentive to do so.  Their experience in software, computing and maybe most importantly, user interfaces make them a disruptive force.  They have no preconceptions in technology, no sunk cost in designs and are brands that appeal to younger buyers.  This is a powerful combination.

Partnerships

Data and software companies in the mapping, navigation and information services space are taking a more central role and corporate partnerships are forming.  An example of this is the purchase of Nokia’s mapping service HERE by Audi, Mercedes and BMW who recognised the importance of ‘owning the map’.

Interest from major technology giants is also growing, Microsoft wants to see its Office 365 in AV infotainment systems and Intel sees its XEON chips providing the processing power.  Toyota has a research partnership with MIT and Stanford University to phase out human drivers, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Jaguar Land Rover are collaborating, and Microsoft and Volvo have recently struck a deal to make a driverless car.  It is reported that Daimler and Bosch are working on fully automated valet parking, Nissan is collaborating with NASA, and BMW and Baidu are jointly addressing the Chinese market.  GM and Lyft are building a network of self-driving cars and it has been reported recently that Google may team up with Ford.

All these partnerships matter because partnerships accelerate technology development and assist those with manufacturing capability to stay at the forefront.  These relationships give software players the opportunity to embed their software in millions of vehicles, allowing them to reach a huge customer base. This is important because AV users – perhaps we shouldn’t call them drivers – will have more time to interact with the AV’s ecosystem. Upgrades to the autonomous driving data and software will use over-the-air software updates, a system that Tesla has pioneered and others are likely to use in the future. The mobile data aspects of this have brought telecommunication players into the partnership mix as well.

Customer ‘ownership’ is likely to be a more complex issue as multiple consumer products become integrated into AVs. Traditionally, the automotive company owned the relationship with the customer, through the sale of the vehicle, ongoing servicing and ultimately providing a replacement vehicle.  In the future, the car may be badged by a manufacturer, but the software and user interface might come from another brand. Over-the-air updates mean customers won’t need to go in for all service updates. The linkage with the customer’s phone and other devices will also be important and the supply of driving data and its acquisition might be from yet another player.

Intellectual Property

Looking at the business partnerships shows who is teaming up and gives a good perspective of the business climate. Studying the trends in IP, allows us to gain a better understanding of the inventions and who the actual innovative leaders are. Various forms of IP are applicable to AV; copyright in software, patents for sensors, trade secrets for navigation algorithms and trademarked brand names to name a few. An AV must be equipped with a range of devices and systems in order to survey and process its surroundings and act on the information it receives. Filing patents enables car manufacturers and their suppliers to protect their inventions while adding value to their business, capitalising on their inventive skills.

Essential components of an AV include a lidar scanner which uses reflected laser light to image the surroundings, a series of radar scanners typically located around the front and rear of the vehicle, a video camera in the windscreen, a GPS and a mechanism for controlling the functions of the AV in order to manoeuvre it. The diagram below shows examples of patents in AV technology.

Sample AV patents

Patent Owners

The ownership of patents and their number is a measure of R&D investment and inventive creativity.  ClearViewIP used a keyword search to find patents which explicitly mentioned autonomous, self-driving or driverless cars.  From this, we selected those owned by major car companies. In the figure below, the company’s total patent portfolio size is plotted against the number of their AV patents. The size of each bubble is proportional to each company’s 2014 revenue.

Who are the top AV patent owners?

The companies with the largest number of AV patents are highlighted in blue. Despite only recently “entering” the automotive market, Google is already punching above its weight in the IP space (note it has filed a larger number of AV patents than any other player). Based on recent news from the car manufacturing industry, we know that the other four companies highlighted in blue in the graph have major AV projects underway. For example, Ford is preparing to test its self-driving cars in California.  Mercedes-Benz is experimenting with their S500 Intelligent Drive AV.  Chevrolet, which is owned by GM, has several AVs in development including the EN-V, an autonomous version of the Volt, the FNR concept car and has recently acquired Cruise, a self-driving car kit startup.  VW own’s Audi and has confirmed that autonomous technology will be integral to the next-generation A8. It was interesting to note our search string did not pick up any Apple footprint. The speculation is they have established a separate entity cloaked in secrecy, so no doubt any patent filings will be under this entity.

An article by Navigant Research identified the car companies leading in the race to introduce an AV, including, GM, Daimler and VW’s Audi.  Their list mirrors the ones identified by ClearViewIP’s IP analysis, demonstrating that the car companies that are focussing their efforts on autonomous driving are also seeking patent protection.

There is a notable exception; Tesla.  Tesla’s Autopilot system is heavily based on a company called Mobileye with headquarters in Israel, who make chips and software algorithms that processes visual information.  This may explain why Tesla, a company with ambitious AV plans does not appear in our analysis.

The IP landscape in the AV sector is complex.  As cars become autonomous they need to be connected – an integral part of the Internet of Things.  This involves various technologies including; transport & logistics, telematics, telecoms and insurance. This article skims the surface of the patent holdings of the established automotive players and one obvious new entrant.  However, a fuller analysis is needed to identify the newer players, understand the balance of power between the OEMs and their suppliers and any IP dependencies from outside the traditional automotive patent landscape.