With investment announcements coming thick and fast, and testing taking place on ever more roads, might 2019 be the year of the self-driving vehicle (SDV)?

A recent statistical release from the European Patent Office (EPO) might suggest so, or at the very least suggest that momentum is building in this important sector. In 2017, the last year in which figures are available, the EPO saw nearly 4000 patent applications related to self-driving vehicles – up from 922 applications in 2011.

This is a staggering 330% increase in just 6 years! To put it into context, filing in this area has grown more than 20 times as fast as patent applications generally at the EPO.

A dynamic new economic sector

The technological and social impacts of SDV will be wide ranging. Smart cities and smart vehicles will communicate with each other in real time, helping overcome the perennial issue of traffic while traditional models of car ownership may change as the line between public and private transport is blurred.

Beyond the hypotheticals however, what the latest EPO report also reveals is the growth of a whole new economic sector around SDVs. The report shows, for example, that while the top 25 companies in this space do account for a significant 40% of all patent filings, the remaining 60% of filings are being undertaken by hundreds of smaller companies.

In this fledgling industry where the natural process of attrition, buy outs and mergers haven’t yet consolidated the market in the hands of a few key players, there’s a huge amount to play for.

If a relatively small company was to patent a truly unique technology in this area for example, it might be the case that they could then license that technology to the rest of the market – giving smaller companies a real chance to compete with some of the more established players.

Well drafted intellectual property (IP) will be key as companies race to become established in this market, allowing innovation is both protected and exploited.

Tech v manufacturing

Alongside the emergence of a whole new manufacturing ecosystem around SDVs, another key theme to emerge from the report is that, of the top 25 filers in this market, traditional car manufacturers are in the minority. While there are some expected inclusions – BAE Systems, Audi and Volvo for example – much of the list is made up of global tech and mobile companies.

Digital technologies are disrupting traditional business models in many ways, and the encroaching of tech companies into markets traditionally dominated by manufacturers is something we see in a number of sectors. In medical technology, pharmaceuticals and other sectors, data driven tech companies are developing innovative products that are disrupting more established businesses. The EPO report would suggest that, as the world gears up for the next generation of transport, the same dynamic is at work in the automotive sector.

Vehicles will always have a significant physical component. As self-driving software becomes more important however, vehicles will come to rely as much on digital as they do on drive trains.

The IP challenge

Complicated software will be an essential component of SDVs and this poses a challenge to companies that have until now dominated the automotive sector but may lack some of the native digital expertise their new competitors.

Securing IP on digital and data driven innovation requires different approaches as needed when securing intellectual property on manufactured goods. Likewise, the rapid evolution of technology in this area poses questions not just for innovators, but for intellectual property law itself. Who owns the IP on innovation created by an AI for example? As the tech evolves, so will the law and the EPO’s new AI guidelines have begun to unpick these issues.

What’s already clear however is that as SDVs drive digital innovation in the automotive sector, strategic and future proofed IP will be essential to those companies looking to capture this new market.