“Self-driving cars are the natural extension of active
safety and obviously something we should do.” These were the
words of Elon Musk, CEO and co- founder of electric car giant,
Tesla back in 2013. It’s a view shared by many people active in
the car industry today. Written by
In recent years, the entire automotive sector appears to have
broadened its focus to develop systems for autonomous vehicles,
with the main aim of developing a safe driverless vehicle. Of
course, the technology required for such vehicles has been in
development for years – computer processor technology capable of
performing millions of vital functions in fractions of a second,
and communications technologies to allow vehicle subsystems to
communicate with one another, with subsystems of other vehicles,
and with other systems outside the vehicle, to name just a few.
Many systems essential for driverless vehicles are already features
of vehicles available today: vehicle-to-vehicle distance detection,
intelligent parking assistance systems (IPAS), electronic stability
control (ESC), and so on. But further developments have made it
possible for computers to take greater control of vehicles, and the
possibility of our roads being full of vehicles without drivers is
no longer just a pipe dream.
While we’re still some way off the time when cars will be
functioning on public roads entirely without human control, some
aspects of autonomous vehicles are by no means new. Ground vehicles
capable of transporting people to destinations without an operator
have been used for decades. In the Netherlands, for example, the
ParkShuttle system transports passengers between five
stations along a dedicated roadway.
ParkShuttle, which has been in running since 1999,
operates minibuses that are guided along a set path by magnetic
cables laid in the road, in a system known as “Free Ranging on
Over the past few years, the development and testing of
autonomous vehicles has received copious amounts of press coverage
(both positive and negative), and it will be clear even to those
unfamiliar with the technology that there has been a rapid increase
in research and development in the field of vehicle automation. Our
patent search and analytics team,
HL Analytics, have looked at patent filing data to
identify trends in this interesting and bourgeoning area.
Our first chart shows conclusively that, year-on-year, there has
been strong growth in the numbers of patent applications filed in
Year-on-year growth in patent applications published and
patents granted. Data for patent filings in 2017 is incomplete as
applications typically take 18 months to publish
As we might expect, the number of autonomous vehicle-related
patent applications published around the world has seen a large
rise since around 2011. The rise appears to have reduced slightly
in 2016, but we are yet to understand if this represents an overall
peak in filing figures in this field or just a blip in the rapid
rise. Patent applications typically remain confidential for 18
months after filing, so the complete filing figures for 2017
won’t be available until mid-2019. The published applications
included in the above chart for 2017 represent cases which have
been subject to accelerated examination/early publication.
So, where are all these patent applications being filed? Many of
the news stories we’ve seen in recent months relate to
developments made by household names in the autonomous vehicle
industry – think Uber, Waymo, Tesla – all of whom
are based in Silicon Valley on the west coast of the USA. While
significant numbers of patent applications are being filed in other
jurisdictions too, the USA seems to be the place to gain patent
protection in this field, with over double the number of filings in
the USA than in the next most popular jurisdiction, Germany.
Top jurisdictions for published patent applications relating
to autonomous vehicles (cumulative figures, unrestricted by
While more applications are filed in the US than any other
jurisdiction, the number of filings in other jurisdictions is not
insignificant. With many major players in the vehicle manufacture
market based in Germany, it is expected that patent protection in
this jurisdiction will be important to many companies active in the
autonomous vehicle field.
With our next charts, we consider which companies are in the
driving seat when it comes to autonomous vehicles.
The following two charts show filing data for the most active
applicants in this field. The first chart details the number of
patent applications published and the number of patents granted to
each of the top 20 filers. Car manufacturing giant,
Ford, tops the table in terms of applications
filed, ahead of Robert Bosch GmbH, Toyota and
GM Global Technology Operations LLC.
Google’s spin-out, Waymo
appear in fifth place in the chart.
Patent applications published and patents granted in the
field of autonomous vehicles for top 20 applicants
It is also interesting to note that, despite the large number of
applications filed by Ford, the number of granted
patents is relatively small. In contrast, Waymo,
having a lower number of patent applications published, have the
largest number of granted patents of any company in the top 20. As
the next chart shows, this is indicative of
Ford’s huge increase in patent filing activity
in recent years after almost no filings in the autonomous vehicle
field prior to 2013.
Yearly breakdown of autonomous vehicle patent applications
filed by various applicants active over the past two
Of interest in the yearly breakdown chart above are the
relatively strong filing figures for Honda,
Nissan and Daimler in the period
from around 1998 to 2005, before a long lull, with filing figures
for all three companies picking up over the past few years.
It is clear that many companies are active in the field of
automotive vehicles, and that the number of patent applications
filed in this field has increased rapidly over the past few years.
Many of the large car manufacturers now appear to be involved in
developing technology for use in autonomous vehicles.
However, within the broad field of autonomous vehicles, there
are a number of areas of technology in which companies are
focussing their research and development.
The chart below shows the types of technologies in which each of
the big filers is involved. Of course, this analysis is somewhat
crude, since a patent application may relate to more than one
technology. The chart does, however, give us an idea of the types
of areas in which companies appear to be have focussed within the
broad field of autonomous vehicles.
Pertinent technologies within the autonomous vehicle field
in which the top filers are filing patent applications
Ford appear to be advancing steadily in all
areas of technology relating to the development of autonomous
vehicles. Google/Waymo lead the field in the
number of patent applications relating to scene and sign
recognition; this might be due to their ability to transfer image
and feature recognition techniques from the web to vehicles.
Aircraft manufacturing giant, Boeing, has filed a
small number of patents in the field of artificial intelligence,
showing that development in this area is not limited to ground
vehicles. And we should not be fooled into believing that the
relatively low filing numbers for some companies indicates that
they are not planning to roll out a driverless car.
BMW, for example, have teamed up with
Intel (who don’t appear on our chart, but are
almost certainly developing general technology that can be
implemented into autonomous vehicles) and
Mobileye, who are world leaders in
collision-avoidance using scene recognition techniques. In fact,
there are many partnerships between companies appearing in the
above charts (and not appearing in the charts), enabling
development of roadworthy and safe driverless vehicles through
sharing knowledge, expertise and research and development
So, what’s next for the development of autonomous vehicles?
Will taxi drivers and couriers all soon become redundant? Will we
soon be able to eat breakfast and watch the morning news while
driving to work? Well, one day, maybe.
Everyone wants to be the first to release a safe driverless
vehicle for use on public roads, and recent press coverage seems to
suggest that we’re getting close to seeing fully autonomous
cars on our roads in the not-too-distant future. Some companies
have set targets of having fleets of driverless cars active within
the next 2 to 3 years. But there are still many issues to be
considered and resolved before we go fully driverless.
For example, who is responsible in the event of an accident? How
will driverless cars deal with changes in road laws in different
countries? Can we be entirely sure that someone won’t hack into
a vehicle’s computer? These and many other issues are currently
under discussion, and will no doubt remain as hot topics for the
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