In the future we will look back and say that when the cars started driving themselves, we became free to put our minds to use. In the present, autonomous vehicles (or AVs) are far from ubiquitous, but AV innovations and patent applications relating to the subject are springing up everywhere.
The AV race has major players in many different industries. Naturally, the world’s largest automobile makers, including Tesla, Ford, GM, Audi, and BM, are all eager to become the major supplier of the self-driving car for the general population. Meanwhile, Google, Apple, Intel, Samsung, and other large technology companies have been making good use of the patent office as they approach the matter from a slightly different angle. What is most interesting, however, is how diverse the resulting inventions have been so far as these companies battle for AV dominance. As one would expect, patent applications have been filed for GPS technology and for mechanical innovations, but, the idea that all of the people in a vehicle will be free from the burden of driving has also led to patents being filed for removable steering wheels, see-through car doors, and even a pop-up round table around which all of the people in a car can sit.
Waymo, a Google affiliate created for the sole purpose of developing a self-driving car, currently has a patent portfolio that is 423 patents deep. To illustrate how diverse the project is in terms of patentable subject matter, Waymo’s patents span 59 different art units that focus on data processing, sensors, optics, transportation, communication, information security, and the list goes on.
Waymo has also managed to maintain impressive patent prosecution statistics while building their patent portfolio. LexisNexis PatentAdvisor® patent analysis software shows us that the USPTO has granted 98.1 percent of Waymo's patent applications, and Waymo has achieved this while prosecuting efficiently - the average amount of time spent in prosecution for a Waymo patent application is right at two years, and Waymo faces an average of only 1.3 office actions per patent application. PatentAdvisor™ patent data also shows that Waymo takes advantage of the ability to interview with a patent examiner with 44.5 percent of their patent applications, and it has paid off because, 74.8 percent of the time, the next significant event to occur after an interview was the grant of their patent. And, even when Waymo is unable to convince their patent examiner that their patent should be granted, they have had a 90 percent success rate of winning on appeal.
While Waymo is not necessarily representative of the rest of the industry, the ease with which they have been able to prosecute their patents does suggest that there is a lot of room for innovation in the field of autonomous vehicles. Building autonomous cars and a standardized network within which they can operate is going to require a concerted effort from players in all facets of technology. Until then, companies are using the USPTO to battle for their position and to secure their place in the AV market.