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.
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:
- System and method for autonomous vehicle driving behavior modification
- Method for autonomous vehicle parking
- System and method for intended passenger detection
- Method for image-based vehicle localization
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:
- Robotic vehicle active safety systems and methods
- Adaptive mapping to navigate autonomous vehicles responsive to physical environment changes
- Simulation system and methods for autonomous vehicles
- System of configuring active lighting to indicate directionality of an autonomous vehicle
- Independent steering, power torque control and transfer in autonomous vehicles
- Active lighting control for communicating a state of an autonomous vehicle to entities in a surrounding environment
- Resilient safety system for a robotic vehicle
- Robotic vehicle active safety systems and methods
- Sensor-based object-detection optimization for autonomous vehicles
- Calibration for autonomous vehicle operation
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:
- Software application to request and control an autonomous vehicle service
- Adaptive autonomous vehicle planner logic
- Machine-learning systems and techniques to optimize teleoperation and/or planner decisions
- Interactive autonomous vehicle command controller
- Method for robotic vehicle communication with an external environment via acoustic beam forming
- Coordination of dispatching and maintaining fleet of autonomous vehicles
- Automated extraction of semantic information to enhance incremental mapping modifications for robotic vehicles
- Autonomous vehicle fleet service and system
- Software application and logic to modify configuration of an autonomous vehicle
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:
- Consideration of risks in active sensing for an autonomous vehicle
- Use of relationship between activities of different traffic signals in a network to improve traffic signal state estimation
- Methods and systems for vehicle radar coordination and interference reduction
- Methods and systems for determining instructions for pulling over an autonomous vehicle
- Remote assistance for autonomous vehicles in predetermined situations
- Folded radiation slots for short wall waveguide radiation
- Engaging and disengaging for autonomous drivingDevice and powered closing of car doors
- Combining multiple estimates of an environment into a consolidated estimate for an autonomous vehicle
- Vehicle with multiple light detection and ranging devices (lidars)
- Methods and systems for transportation to destinations by a self-driving vehicle
- Methods and systems for lidar optics alignment
- Devices and methods for a rotary joint with multiple wireless links
- Fall back trajectory systems for autonomous vehicles
- Collision mitigated braking for autonomous vehicles
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:
- Systems and methods for managing vehicle obd data in a network of moving things, for example including autonomous vehicle data
- Systems and methods for interfacing with a network of moving things
- Systems and methods for managing mobility of users in a network of moving things at the backhaul
- Systems and methods for managing mobility of users in a network of moving things at the edge
- Systems and methods for multiple-path delay tolerant communication in a network of moving things, for example including a network of autonomous vehicles
- Systems and methods for managing a network of moving things
- Systems and methods for managing radio frequency transmit power of nodes in a network of moving things
And of course Uber is registering patents like crazy, all naturally focused on a driverless fleet, including these most recent ones:
- Object detection for an autonomous vehicle
- Sensory stimulation system for an autonomous vehicle
- Determining a location related to on-demand services through use of portable computing devices
- Transport vehicle configuration for impaired riders
- External sensor assembly for vehicles
- Lidar scanner calibration
- Road registration differential gps
- Location searching with category indices
- Flexible departure time for trip requests
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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