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04.10.16

With Software Patents in Autonomous Cars Few Giants Want a Monopoly on Driving, Not Just Physical Car Components

Posted in America, Asia, Patents at 2:48 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Mobile car

Summary: How software patents can retard innovation in the autonomous cars space and why it’s the far east (Asia) that’s likely to exploit this obsession with patents

NOW that David Kappos lobbies for software patents after his USPTO career and Battistelli threatens to bring software patents to Europe through EPO/UPC, let’s consider what’s at stake and whether society should tolerate it. People have been driving for many years; there’s nothing novel about it.

Decades ago Martin Goetz had CAFC introduce software patents in the US (the first software patent ever to be granted relates to this) and right now a blog of software patents proponents writes about patents on autonomous cars.

“Media and Sonar Systems have the least number of patent filings with only 396 and 597 patents/patent applications respectively.”
      –Rahul Vijh
This matters to me personally as I previously developed an Android app for computer vision on the dashboard (my research field at one time though I usually dealt with medical/biology). I did wonder how many software patents existed in this domain in the US, but I never bothered checking (it’s infeasible). According to the blog: “As with any new emerging technology, focus also shifts to patents and patent ownership trends on that technology. Research shows that technologies such as Adaptive Cruise Control and Anti-Collision Systems have the highest number of patents/patent applications filings, followed by Braking Control Mechanism and Communication Systems. Media and Sonar Systems have the least number of patent filings with only 396 and 597 patents/patent applications respectively.”

That’s a lot of patents. Many are on software. Tesla, which more or less gave up on patents in this domain, gets mentioned later: “Despite the small portfolio size, Tesla oft shares spotlight with Google – and has announced that the new Model 3 cars shipping in 2017 will be able to run in ‘Autopilot’ mode at least on freeways and to “Summon” itself out of its parking spot. But that’s not just why Tesla is dangerous for competition. Tesla’s product seems to be the most advanced commercially-viable implementation of autonomous car technology – seeing how the Model 3 is only expected to cost $35,000, which means the heat is really on for the other larger traditional automobile players (and also on Google and Apple) to commercialize their own autonomous car technology, and make it accessible to regular consumers, before Tesla takes the road from beneath their wheels.”

“That’s a lot of patents. Many are on software.”Looking at today’s news alone, one finds that the US is falling behind in this area, in spite (or maybe because) of patents. Too many patents on this domain (driving as ‘innovation’) hamper progress and new articles indicate that it’s a growing industry that has moved to the far east [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].

Consider for a moment the fact that many of the methods described in such patents have nothing to do with mechanics and everything to do with computer programs (that’s just what autonomy is about). These are software patents on emulation of whatever drivers have been doing for about a century. What’s next? A flood of “on a car” patents? Like “over the Internet” or “on a computer” patents?

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