The autonomous vehicle sector is accelerating with every passing month. Investors are watching closely, as are consumers with a mixture of anticipation and concern. There are predictions that Uber will be driverless by 2019. Very soon, the entire automotive industry will be transformed. One of our questions is: Does the future of autonomous vehicles spell the end of private car ownership? To answer that, and other questions about Autonomous Drive Systems (ADS), we looked at both acquisitions and patents to get a better grasp on where the industry is headed.

What we found is a mixture of traditional automotive companies and tech startups vying for a power position. In early September Ford purchased shuttle van startup Chariot. Although the company is not using ADS at the moment, the purchase recognizes that human drivers have become weary of dealing with the insane traffic of megacities and are looking for alternatives that get them out from behind the wheel.

Also read: Have we reached the end of the road with autonomous vehicles?

Tech giant Intel paid big money for Mobileye buying the company last March because it specializes in computer vision for autonomous driving technology. This acquisition gives Intel the relationships (with nearly 30 car manufacturers) and the technology to deliver an end-to-end solution for self-driving vehicles.

What the Patents Tell Us

Cruise Automation, acquired by GM,  has registered numerous patents in 2017. Much of them center around autonomous vehicle driving and safety, including:

This one may be extremely meaningful when you consider the number of non autonomous vehicles currently on the road: System for retrofitting vehicle automation. When you consider that the average vehicle stays on the American road for 11.6 years, this may be a key patent to hold.

Another Cruise patent is an indication of where GM sees the future of ADS. In July of 2017 Cruise registered a patent for System and method for autonomous vehicle fleet routing. Does Cruise see the future of autonomous vehicles as a total disruption of private car ownership? Or is it focused on mass transportation of people and good? They also registered a patent for System and method for externally interfacing with an autonomous vehicle, which indicates the desire to control autonomous vehicles from afar, or at least not by the “driver.”

In October, Cruise also bought Strobe, a company that specializes in shrinking LIDAR arrays down to a single chip. The Strobe purchase has one critical benefit; it will cut the cost of developing an autonomous fleet, meaning Cruise/GM will be very competitive.

Zoox, Inc., a Menlo Park, CA-based robotics company focused on creating autonomous mobility, filed patents for systems and security of autonomous vehicles, all fairly standard when one considers what is necessary to operate a driverless vehicle. They include:

However, Zoox also registered numerous patents that indicate they too see a growth in autonomous fleet management and the probability of an Uber-like transportation system replacing private car ownership:

Also read: Who is leading the race to mainstream autonomous vehicles?

Waymo, Google’s ADS division, is also a major player in the patent race. They are very active in patent registration, with the majority of their patent registrations focused around the operation of ADS:

However, this one patent stands out: Arranging passenger pickups for autonomous vehicles. It is doubtful that Google/Waymo would overlook the mass transit possibilities for autonomous vehicles.

Veniam, Inc. is also a player. They’ve applied for numerous patents related to autonomous vehicles, all of them revolving around networks of multiple autonomous vehicles:

And of course Uber is registering patents like crazy, all naturally focused on a driverless fleet, including these most recent ones:

One thing these patent registrations tell us is that the game is still fairly open when it comes to which players will dominate the autonomous vehicle market. There are leader with deep pockets, including GM and Google, but there is also plenty of room for startups, especially around system security, to make waves and be acquired. The autonomous vehicle industry is maturing, but we are still in the early stages where there is room for smaller players to get in.

The other takeaway is that private car ownership may very well be a thing of the past, at least for those who are not wealthy. The number of patents relevant to autonomous fleets and mass transit is indicative of where the ADS market will likely lead us. Consumers may be resistant now, particularly in the US where the love affair with the automobile has existed for over 100 years. However, the costs-benefits will likely mean that love affair will become a thing of the past. This disruption is not only coming to the American market, and based on the companies registering patents, it will be a global one.


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