Buckle up. The reality of self-driving vehicles is around the corner, headed toward a dealership near you, and you might be surprised to see which companies (or should I say, which company’s computers) will be in the driver’s seat.
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) featured a record 10 automakers on display in 2015. This year, the amount of floor space devoted to auto-related exhibits increased by 25 percent. Autonomous vehicle technologies from both established automobile manufacturers and progressive high-tech companies have conspired to make the automobile cockpit the center of innovation. But the leaders of the effort to build the ultimate driverless car aren’t entirely the Silicon Valley leaders getting so much attention of late.
Thomson Reuters analysts put their research in high gear to quantify just who the major players in this space are with the “2016 State of Self-Driving Automotive Innovation.” Data was aggregated from the Derwent World Patents Index® (DWPI?) collection to identify global patent activity and the total number of unique inventions issued in published patent applications and granted patents were analyzed from January 2010 through October 31, 2015.
The findings detail a notable commitment from carmakers and tech companies to advance driverless technology, while uncovering the fact that established automakers are the most likely to have the biggest impact in the self-driving category in the near term.
Autonomous Patents Take off and Keep Growing
There were more than 22,000 unique, self-driving inventions from January 2010 through October 2015, as shown in Figure 1. That’s a trend that should continue its upward climb, although at a more tempered pace than it experienced between 2012 and 2014.
Figure 1: Autonomous Driving Inventions 2010-2015
The three areas that comprise driverless automotive innovation are autonomous driving, driver assistance and telematics, each of which is at a different stage in its evolution. Autonomous driving is the clear leader in terms of level of activity, while the view through year-end shows driver assistance potentially hitting a plateau, and telematics experiencing a slight rise. Note: each invention was assigned to just one of the three categories covered, thereby eliminating duplication.
Figure 2: Self-Driving Vehicle Inventions Across the Three Main Categories (2010 – 2015)
Autonomy: Toyota & Japan Lead the Way
Toyota is the world’s top autonomous innovator from a patent perspective with over 7,000 patent assignments during the period covered, as shown in Figure 3. That could come as a surprise to some who anticipated a Palo-Alto tech company as the one making the fastest inroads in this space. Surprise as it may be, Toyota is one of five Japanese manufacturers (the others being Honda, Denso, Seiko Epson and Mitsubishi) in the top ten, the most of any country.
Figure 3: Top Autonomous Driving Innovators (2010 – 2015)
Bosch (Germany) is the lone European company in the top five, while the United States has one representative in the top 10 – General Motors – which is ninth on the list. Google ranks 19th in the world, followed by Ford, which secured the 20th spot. Overall, Asia has 11 of the world’s top 20 autonomous-driving innovators.
Telematics: ‘Connected’ Vehicle Technology Gains Momentum
The field of telematics, which enables Wi-Fi-style communications in vehicles and powers the sensors that facilitate self-driving automobiles, made a prominent debut after stealing the stage at CES this year. Companies as diverse as General Motors, LG and United Parcel Service (UPS) are actively patenting in this area, as shown in Figure 4. However, it is GM that takes the lead by a longshot, with more than 70 percent more activity than its nearest competitor, Hyundai.
Figure 4: Top Telematics Innovators (2010 – 2015)
The outlier here is Apple. It has just one invention overall across all areas of self-driving innovation, and that invention is in telematics, covering the time period from 2010 – October 2015. Despite what headlines project, the iCar looks to be more anonymous than autonomous, at least in the short term.
The Road to Relaxing Driving
Autonomous cars are here, albeit in their very early phases, and will continue to evolve over the coming decade. But where they go from this infancy stage to the mass market will be determined by which companies hold the most R&D in the area. While organizations like Google and Apple receive a lot of headline print, it is really the established automotive players that are paving the way. This opens the door for partnership opportunities galore, between auto manufacturers and techs to leverage their respective assets and expertise, such as the reported partnership between Ford and Amazon announced in January. There is still plenty of time for the market to shift, but our forecast shows that the roads are more apt to have the likes of autonomous Toyotas and Hyundais before we see a tech company completely disrupt the space.