Looking back on 2015, autonomous and electric vehicles dominate car tech headlines

By Steve Brachmann
December 31, 2015

2015-rear-view-mirrorIn many ways, 2015 has been the year of the automobile, especially in the tech world. Throughout the course of the year we’ve noted a great deal of business and technological developments that have been reshaping the entire vehicle manufacturing sector. Gone are the days that the market is completely dominated by names such as General Motors Company (NYSE:GM), Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) or Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE:TM) As 2015 draws to a close, these traditional automaker behemoths are seeing encroachment on their position from some unusual names, especially those residing in Silicon Valley.

Our first hint that some major changes in the industry were getting underway was at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where we got our first look at new developments in autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles. Perhaps this stood out most because CES is not typically an auto show; in fact, in the month of January, most of the auto industry is focused on the North American International Auto Show where new vehicle developments are typically presented. Still, CES saw a bevy of self-driving vehicles from automakers such as BMW (ETR:BMW), Audi (ETR:NSU) and Mercedes-Benz, a brand manufactured by Daimler (ETR:DAI), placing European carmakers at a leading position to start the year. Mercedes-Benz showcased a particularly luxurious model featuring zero carbon emissions, fuel cell and battery technologies as well as fully rotatable seats, turning the driving experience into something more like a mobile social room.

Early January also featured one of the bigger corporate announcements pertaining to an atypical trend in patenting activities in the automotive sector. Toyota had announced a cost-free licensing program for more than 5,600 patents held by the company, mainly in the field of hydrogen fuel cell propulsion systems and vehicles. The decision came about half a year after Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA), announced in a blog post that his company wouldn’t enforce patent rights on its portfolio of more than 200 U.S. patents against those using these technologies “in good faith” to develop electric vehicles. This past summer, Ford announced that it would be facilitating a licensing program for more than 1,500 intellectual properties in the field of electric vehicles. Seeing as the automotive industry has reflected a “not invented here” bias for many decades which has made cross-licensing of technologies a non-starter for many companies, these licensing programs are evidence of some real disruption in this market.

The fight between alternatively powered vehicles certainly wasn’t decided in 2015, although it was another interesting chapter in the story. This summer, we looked at this consumer sector to find that, although only a small percentage of overall new car sales were for electric vehicles (EVs), they still far outpaced the number of fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) on the road in America. When looking at the EV sector by the number of patents issued, American automakers Ford and GM were far outpacing Japanese rivals like Toyota and Honda Motor Co. (NYSE:HMC) in that respect. That’s not to say that Asian automakers were lagging far behind, and our late August look into autonomous vehicles developed by Toyota, Honda and South Korea-based Hyundai Motor Company (KRX:005380), where we saw guidance mechanisms and external object detection systems.

Electric vehicle innovations abounded this year, one of the most intriguing of which is a wireless induction charging scheme for electric vehicles. This technology is a goal of the research and development partnership between Daimler and Qualcomm, Inc. (NASDAQ:QCOM); BMW was also pursuing similar technology at the time of our coverage. Other innovations in the automotive sector, like Ford’s car sharing system for vehicle owners who’d like to earn some money by renting their car, speak to a new model for vehicle ownership entirely as the nation’s population grows and more drivers than ever are sharing the roads.

Still, it was self-driving vehicles which dominated the headlines; not only what was being developed, but also for who was involved with developing this tech. Google, now Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG), had many automotive technologies that we noted during our Companies We Follow surveys of the corporation. In fact, our late August coverage of the intellectual properties related to autonomous vehicles showed us that Google had taken the lead in self-driving car sector ahead of GM, Toyota and Honda in terms of patents held. Self-driving car developments had seemingly every major tech company jumping into the market, from Intel Corporation’s (NASDAQ:INTC) system for adapting autonomous driving techniques to locality-specific driving rules to the recent announcement by Samsung Electronics (KRX:005930) that it would establish its own business unit for self-driving car development.

Of course, autonomous vehicles won’t be on the road tomorrow and even if they were, there would more than likely be regulatory hurdles to clear before their use on American roads became fully legal. Through the first few months of the year, a handful of state-level governments (California, Michigan, Florida, Nevada and the District of Columbia) had passed legislation meant to ensure the safe operation of self-driving vehicles. A framework developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration helps to establish a nationally recognized metric against which self-driving technologies can be judged on a spectrum from no automation to full self-driving automation. Regulatory battles regarding self-driving vehicles this year also affected unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones. A Senate hearing in late March by the Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation discussed many technological gaps in the drone industry, including sense-and-avoid technologies, which have some relevancy to the autonomous vehicle market.

With so many new technologies focused on changing the driving experience as we know it, we were not surprised to take note of a Thomson Reuters report on the state of innovation in the automotive sector which indicated that patenting activities related to car innovations were on a definite uptick in recent years. Much of this increased activity involves fuel propulsion systems for EVs and FCVs, although the report also notes higher patent numbers for autonomous navigation, telematics and driver assistance. Patents related to fuel propulsion alone raced ahead from 2,000 in 2009 to more than 12,000 in 2013.

The automotive industry is very much a status symbol to the American way of life and Detroit had been the center of the vehicle manufacturing world for many decades. Recent intellectual property portfolio surveys of America’s Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler, now Fiat Chrysler Auto [NYSE:FCAU]) showed us plenty of innovations in telematics units, passenger detection and collision sensors indicating a heavy R&D presence from American automakers. Still, as we profiled this summer, the American market has been encroached upon from mainly Asian automakers as Japanese companies in the 1970s, and then South Korean carmakers in the early 2000s. This year, American consumers got their first taste of the first car sold in the U.S. which was completely fabricated in China, the Volvo S60 Inscription. Still, with Silicon Valley taking such a strong interest in vehicle innovation, it’s likely that America will still retain the crown in automotive development although at least some of the center of power may shift from Michigan down southwest to California.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a writer located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He has become a regular contributor to IPWatchdog.com, writing about technology, innovation and is the primary author of the Companies We Follow series. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients.

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