May, 13th, 2019

By Patrick D. Duplessis

These days it seems almost every article or news report about self-driving vehicles (SDVs) includes the prophecy that the automobile will soon resemble a “smartphone on wheels.”  That oft-repeated phrase alludes to the fact that SDVs are increasingly incorporating many of the same technologies that make today’s mobile phones so “smart,” such as wireless communications technologies, sensing and perception technologies, and so on.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the European Patent Office’s recently-published list of the most active patent applicants in SDV technology reads like a “who’s who” of tech and telecom companies.  Samsung, Intel, and Qualcomm take the top 3 spots.  These relative newcomers to the automotive space overshadow the presence of automotive companies like Toyota, Volvo, and Audi.

The prolific patent filing in the SDV space by tech and telecom companies likely reflects their understanding that patents are primarily about market share, not technology.  The smartphone patent wars that ensnared most of these companies reinforced the importance of filing patent applications early and often as a way to protect future market spaces from competitors.  These companies are not deterred by the fact that we are still years away from fully-autonomous vehicles.  They understand that now is the time to protect technologies that will come to market in 10-15 years.

Automotive companies developing SDV technologies will need to adopt patent strategies that account for the new entrants from the tech and telecom sectors.  Automotive companies will be forced to think in terms of capturing and maintaining their share of a future market for “smartphones on wheels.”


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