Patents and Self-Driving Vehicles

Tesla Model S
Author Paul Sableman
Licence Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic
Source Wikipedia



















Jane Lambert

Yesterday I attended the eCommerce Show North at EventCity Manchester.  One of the exhibitors was Tesla Inc. Two of the company's cars were on display and I took a peek inside one of them.  The car had a steering wheel and many of the instruments that would be expected on any other car but I could find only one pedal and there was a large screen displaying the locations of the nearest charging points.

At first, I was surprised to find a luxury car manufacturer among the developers, fintech, marketing and social media consultancies, private equity and business angel investors but then I realized that logistics are essential to electronic commerce. Goods purchased over the internet have to be delivered. The optimum means of delivery are autonomous electric vehicles. Those are the things that Tesla develops and manufacturers.  Not just motor cars but electric lorries fitted with enhanced autopilot systems.

The eCommerce Show North coincided with the publication by the European Patent Office and the European Council for Automotive R & D of the report Patents and Self-Driving Vehicles. The report found "that the number of European patent applications related to autonomous driving has grown 20 times faster than other technologies in recent years: From 2011 to 2017, patent applications at the EPO for autonomous driving increased by 330%, compared to 16% across all technologies in the same period. And in the past ten years, the EPO received some 18 000 patent applications related to self-driving vehicles, with nearly 4 000 in 2017 alone." The report provided a comprehensive picture of current trends and emerging leaders in self-driving vehicle technologies.

The report divided the technologies disclosed in the patents and patent applications that have so far been filed into two categories:
  • Automated vehicle platforms – technologies embodied in the vehicle itself such as those that enable vehicles to make autonomous decisions (eg. perception, analysis and decision), vehicle self handling and underlying hardware and software systems; and 
  • Smart environment technologies that enable self-driving vehicles to interact with each other and their surroundings for safety, traffic management, re-charging and the like.
Perception, analysis and decision and communications were the largest and fastest growing fields.

The top five applicants to the European Patent Office between 2011 and 2017 were Samsung with 634, Intel with 590, Qualcomm with 361, LG Group with 348 and Robert Bosch with 343. The top British applicant was BAE Systems with 112 which was the 22nd in that period,  Businesses in countries that are party to the European Patent Convention filed 1,400 applications in 2017.  There was a similar number of applications from the USA.  Japan filed 468 applications, Korea 382 and China for 194.

According to the Industrial Strategy white paper, self-driving and electric vehicles are technologies that HM government hopes to develop in the UK. According to the report, businesses in Germany made 2,151 applications between 2011 and 2017, those in France 715 and those in Sweden 703. Businesses in the UK trailed with 439 applications which total was marginally better than that of the Netherlands which made 419 applications in that period even though the Netherlands has only a third of our population.

The report considers in detail possible uses for self-driving technology such as robot taxis and marshalling lorries into long columns to reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency (a practice known as "platooning").  It also considers present trends and the future deployment of those technologies.

This is an area of technology in which I have been interested for many years,  Even before I came to the bar I was editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit's Rubber Trends which focused on the tyre industry and contributed to Motor Business.  Later I was the automotive industry analyst for stockbrokers, Vivian Gray & Co.  I have continued to follow this sector while I have been at the patent bar.  Anyone wishing to discuss this article or automotive patents generally should call me on +44 (0)20 7404 5252 or send me a message through my contact form.

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