The Autonomous Vehicle Patent Race

SOUTHFIELD – Incremental advancements in driver assistance technologies are paving the way toward an autonomous automotive world. For example, many new vehicles include adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assist features for providing enhanced safety through some level of autonomy. Not surprisingly, traditional automotive manufacturers, as well as newcomers to the automotive space like Silicon Valley software companies, are racing to both develop and protect intellectual property.

Current driver assistance technologies are typically unique and customized based on manufacturer/developer, as these technologies generally do not involve vehicle-to-infrastructure or vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which requires greater standardization for compatibility. As such, the leap from implementing individualized autonomous features to full and advanced automation will not come without significant challenges, including intellectual property and related regulation/standardization. These challenges are only made more complex by globalization and different regulations and requirements depending on country or region in which vehicles are sold.

Of course, there will be winners and losers in the race to patent technologies associated with autonomous vehicles. It’s likely that certain patents will ultimately issue and inherently protect key “building blocks” to implementation of advanced autonomous vehicles. In this respect, the automotive industry may be guided by the telecom industry and other nascent technologies.

For example, in the telecom industry, certain essential patents paved the way for standardization. There, to address a dichotomy between necessary standardization for universal technologies and the limited monopoly afforded by patent protection, standard setting organizations (SSOs) require commitments to licensing schemes commonly known as FRAND licensing – an acronym for fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory license terms. These FRAND licenses may minimize value or cost tied to individual licenses, which may be undesirable to patent owners, but also result in significantly greater markets (and the number of licenses) tied to standardization, allowing for universal implementation of the patented technology. FRAND licenses have other benefits to licensees, too, in that these licenses minimize risk of infringement of third party patents in view of the underlying FRAND license.

In contrast, there is not yet any SSO requiring FRAND licenses in the autonomous vehicle space. This opens the race for development of competing technologies in the effort to develop essential building blocks that may set a standard in the automotive industry. However, as with the telecom industry, we can likely expect significant litigation and posturing before any standards are implemented. Without standardization or the ability of these competing technologies to work together, however, monetization of advanced autonomous technologies will be limited.

It will be exciting to see development and implementation of these new autonomous technologies. But, given the hurdles in connection with full implementation of advanced autonomous technologies, one must also question whether any patents being pursued now will still be enforceable (or expired) by the time the market is ripe for exploitation.

Randy will appear on M2 TechCast Monday Nov. 27 to talk about autonomous vehicle patent law. You can listen live at Studio 1 from 3 to 4 pm. 

Randy is a patent and transactional attorney who focuses his practice in the chemical, mechanical and electro-mechanical arts. He is a trusted advisor among global clientele and regularly participates in their business and technology strategy meetings to ensure successful outcomes for patent matters. Randy is an extension of his clients’ businesses and oversees patent procurement (including post-issuance validity challenges), opinion work and various transactions and agreements involving intellectual property. To Randy, success is defined by helping clients reach favorable outcomes and achieve business goals. To clients, Randy is a valuable partner who helps them navigate complex patent laws across the globe.

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