Self-driving or Autonomous Vehicles (“AV”) are set to be a reality, and no longer the stuff of science fiction. In Singapore, pilot trials are ongoing at the one-north district, a business park located in Queenstown, an area recognised for innovation, with the likes of Exploit Technologies (the commercialisation arm of the government body Agency for Science, Technology and Research) and NUS Enterprise based there.
With a patent application lodged last year (2018) with the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (“IPOS”) titled “Facilitating Vehicle Driving and Self-Driving”, nuTonomy Inc., a United States- based software company, hopes to be the first to introduce a driverless taxi system in Singapore, with ongoing tests underway at the public roads located at the one-north district.
As compared to other countries in the South-East Asian region, Singapore arguably is leading the race in the development of AV technology. In this part of the world, Singapore’s reputation of having superb road infrastructure, strong government support, and credible technological know-how from world class universities is an attractive pulling force for start-ups and firms keen on jumping on the bandwagon towards AV technology
Other South-East Asian countries eager to join the race in AV technology currently are facing obstacles that are yet to be resolved. Such obstacles include the lack of legislation to support such initiatives, substandard road infrastructure, and notorious congestion problems. All of the aforementioned issues can deter major developers of AV technologies from Europe (such as German car and auto components manufacturers) and the United States from considering South-East Asian countries as a market for the testing and launching of their AV technologies.
In the context of the patent landscape for AV technology, an interesting trend has been observed. Apart from traditional car manufacturers wanting a slice of the AV technology market, software and technology companies are also competing for the same, going by the number of worldwide patent filings that relate to AV technology.
Case in point: Waymo, LLC (“Waymo”). A self-driving technology development company and a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., Waymo only just made it to the list of top 10 companies filing patent applications worldwide with regard to AV technology. Waymo filed 338 applications relating to AV technology from January 2010 to July 2017, according to a report by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research and the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
Waymo has filed 11 patent applications in Singapore alone, and all were filed in 2017 and 2018. One is already granted and in force. Further, in a broader context, a study recently conducted by the Nikkei Asian Review (in collaboration with Japanese research firm Patent Result Co, Ltd) revealed that Waymo had overtaken traditional car and auto-component manufacturers such as Toyota and General Motors (“GM”) in terms of patent-based competitiveness.
As such, Singapore is poised to continue move ahead in the race towards AV technology that is fully automated. A January 2018 report by Klynveld Peat Marvick Goerdeler (“KPMG”) titled “Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index” ranks Singapore in top spot as far as policy, legislation and consumer acceptance is concerned.
Singapore has still more capacity for technology and innovation, and this can perhaps be bolstered by collaborating with technology/software companies and traditional car manufacturers in an environment that has proven itself to be conducive for such developments due to political and economic stability, infrastructure, and other reasons highlighted in KPMG’s report. Standardizing systems components across all models of cars will be necessary to ensure success in the realisation of AV technology. The ultimate goal will be to reach the highest classification system level of 5, as set by Society of Automotive Engineers International. There are 6 levels in total; with Level 0 accounting for most of the vehicles today whereby the vehicle is fully controlled by a human. At Level 5, the vehicle requires zero human bodily function, from braking to accelerating.
The AV industry can be thought of as a “smartphone on wheels”. As such, the problems currently faced by the smartphone industry with regard to the patent landscape could similarly apply to the AV industry as well. These include large-scale licensing of technology as AVs becomes more widely accepted, the careful consideration of the types of intellectual property protections available (other than patents) that may apply in protecting such technology, as well as deciding industry standards that should be applied on all AVs, regardless of brand or model.
Building strong intellectual property on a global scale is the first step. Even if the innovation is not translated into successful products, companies could still earn substantial revenues through licensing. Licensing and cross-licensing deals offer several advantages over litigation: - it would work in favour of all parties, avoid expensive litigation costs and create a healthier system within the industry. This is one of the lessons that the AV industry should learn from the smartphone industry.
Let’s take the Nokia-Apple war as an example. Nokia filed several lawsuits against Apple over their wireless transmission technologies in 2009. Apple then enforced its own touchscreen-related patents against Nokia as a counterattack. However, Apple’s touchscreen-related patents were no match for Nokia’s strong intellectual property on telecommunications. As a result, Apple joined Nokia’s growing number of licensees and buried their disputes for an undisclosed settlement, which reportedly included a one-time payment and payment of regular royalties to Nokia.
Thereafter, more and more smartphone companies have chosen licensing and cross-licensing deals over litigation. Consequently, the number of smartphone litigation suits has reportedly dropped since 2012.
Hence, the AV industry could do well in learning from the lessons of the smartphone industry, and potentially avoid expensive litigation suits as seen in the legal battles involving Huawei, Samsung and Apple, just to name a few.