The autonomous vehicle (AV) industry is poised for rapid growth. Automated vehicles promise to revolutionize many aspects of human life—from daily commutes to entire urban infrastructures—and new technologies emerge each day. The first commercial, fully-autonomous vehicles are expected to hit the road as early as next year, and growth in this industry may reportedly surpass the rise of smartphones in the mid-2000s.
Making an AV work is no easy feat, and like smartphones, every AV draws its functionality from hundreds of complex systems, many of which include thousands of interacting components. AVs can include range-sensing systems (e.g., LIDAR, RADAR), location-determining systems (e.g., GPS, GNSS), imaging sensors (e.g., cameras), among many others. Outputs from these systems are fed to the AV’s computing systems, where the received information is analyzed and interpreted to determine navigational actions for the AV that are safe and accomplish the motion goals of the vehicle. Even after navigational actions are determined, a host of automated actuation systems (propulsion, braking, and steering, among others) are required to translate those actions into vehicle motion.
With so many different types of systems needed to drive an AV, it is no surprise that the AV industry includes companies of all shapes and sizes. Hardware makers construct the sensors, chips, and communications infrastructures (both onboard and wireless) for the AVs. Software developers build programs to interpret data, implement driving policies, and generate navigational responses quickly and intelligently. OEMs and automobile manufacturers assemble and install component parts onboard the AVs. And all of these products must work together to form a functional and reliable driving experience.
AV companies have been aggressively pursuing the multitude of patenting opportunities that complex AVs provide. Reports indicate that a typical smartphone, with its many systems and subsystems, may implicate more than 250,000 patents in the U.S. alone. The rapid increase in patenting in the AV space, coupled with an AV’s comparable or even higher level of complexity relative to a smartphone, suggests the AV industry is headed in the same direction. Major car companies such as Toyota, Ford, BMW, Bosch, and Volkswagen have begun filing AV patents, as well as companies like Google, Apple, Uber, Waymo, Amazon, Audible, and Mobileye (an Intel company). Even financial institutions such as Capital One are filing for patents in the AV field.
Currently, over 4,300 issued U.S. patents contain the phrase “autonomous vehicle,” and hundreds more issue each month. These patents are directed toward almost every component of an AV. Some patents focus on AV sensors, such as improvements to LIDAR/RADAR systems, specialized cameras, and communications systems. Other patents focus on software for detecting objects and navigating the AV. Some companies are pursuing patents on quality-of-life improvements such as enhanced displays, in-vehicle gaming, and messaging products. And some patents even focus on retail applications, such as mobile ATM and food services.
Not all issued patents are of equal value, however. Merely having a patent does not guarantee market share, license deals, or litigation deterrence. To do these things, a patent must have claims that impact competitors. Patents that do not impact competitors have little value.
Creating high-value patents does not happen by chance. Rather, it requires forethought and strategy—something most companies emphasize relative to their business plan and marketing strategies, but neglect when it comes to their patents. As a result, most companies fail to maximize value through their patents. And patent value does not flow from numbers alone, as even a modest number of patents having claims important to competitors can generate more corporate value than piles of patents whose claims miss the mark.