Friday, 13 May 2016

Who is driving autonomous cars? A profile of patenting activity

What's driving the automotive sector these days? It's plain from the popular media that cars are expected to be driving themselves soon, and the prospect of autonomous driving (a.k.a. driverless cars) has inspired comments from economists, business analysts, lawyers and, inevitably, cartoonists.

If you are wondering about the IP profile of this fascinating sector, here's a link to "Automotive: Insights into autonomous driving and dashboards", a presentation recently prepared by Sebastian Mulller-Borges with the aid of Aistemos's Cipher analytics tool. From this presentation you can get a feel for the tremendous growth in patenting activity in a field that looks set to change radically the way we use vehicular travel for domestic and commercial purposes. What, in brief, does this industrial snapshot show us?
Bosch, Honda and Toyota are the patenting powerhouses, with both strong year-on-year growth and large patent portfolios. They do not have the field to themselves, though, since Google, GM, Continental and Ford also show impressive growth. Perhaps curiously, given the perceived advantages which autonomous driving can offer, no companies in the defence or aerospace sectors hold substantial portfolios.
Comparing leaders Bosch and Honda, what do we see? Honda was initially in the lead but has now been overhauled by Bosch. Based in Europe, Bosch has a wider European patent coverage strategy, while Honda has broader global coverage. Bo. sch's applications show a relatively low conversion rate, which may suggest that the high cost of a strong European patenting strategy encourages a higher rate of abandonment
Turning to the challenging group, a comparison of Google, VW and GM shows that,while their patent portfolios are of broadly similar size, they have widely differing geographic profiles and conversion rates. Germany's VW reflects a similar European-oriented, low-conversion strategy to that of fellow countrymen Bosch. At the other end of the scale, Google's conversion rate is remarkably high but almost entirely US-focused.

Addressing dashboard patenting, how do the different types of company fare against each other? In general, tech companies outperform traditional automotive manufacturers in terms of both solid growth and portfolio size. Automotive manufacturers in turn appear to be more active than suppliers. Both Apple and, more recently, Google, have experienced surges in their patenting activity; between them they own most of the families of granted dashboard patents (indeed, as the figure above shows, each of them holds more such families than all the other leading companies put together).

What does the future hold for this sector? Which investors will emerge as the winners? And will there be a healthy supply of available licences and interoperable innovations -- or will consumers be forced to choose between entirely different competing options? At this stage it is too early to predict, but we shall be keeping an eye on developments and look forward to be able to describe and explain them in due course.

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