Near the beginning of this year, we saw that around the world, the automotive sector has been obtaining patents at an increasing pace. Patents for auto innovations have been an interesting focal point for more than the last 12 months after Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk announced last June that the company wouldn’t enforce its patent rights. This was later topped by Toyota Motor Corp (NYSE:TM) and its decision to open source more than 5,000 patents in the field of fuel cell technologies, a sector competing with the lithium-ion battery-powered electric vehicles developed by Tesla and others.
This summer, we’ve also been covering shifts in the American automotive consumer market, which have taken place over the course of decades. Since the Big Three of General Motors Company (NYSE:GM), Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) and Chrysler Corporation (now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV [FCAU:US]) arose to dominance by the middle of the 20th century, their market dominance has been chipped into by fuel efficient Japanese models during the 1970s as well as a surge of activity which has been benefitting South Korean automakers most recently. Soon, Chinese automobiles will also be part of the discussion as the first car manufactured by a manufacturer based in China is going to be sold in America this year.
With all of this in mind, we’ve been asking ourselves if it’s possible that the American automotive industry’s decline in stature has been a contributing factor to reduced levels of innovation among the Big Three. To get a sense of how American manufacturers are doing we decided to take a look at autonomous vehicle development specifically.
Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles have been garnering a great deal of attention since taking the stage during the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas this past January. A Thomson Reuters report released this year identified autonomous driving technologies as a recent hot topic in automotive R&D. As the pie chart above represents, some unconventional names like Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) are near the top and and among more traditional auto manufacturers.
American Development of Autonomous Vehicles: From Intersection Management to Reconfigurable Seats
The development of robust vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication systems are needed for the incorporation of self-driving cars on our roads and GM has been working on its own V2V systems, as is evidenced by U.S. Patent No. 8954261, entitled Autonomous Vehicle Positioning System for Misbehavior Direction. The autonomous vehicle positioning system disclosed here identifies malicious communication activity broadcast by a remote vehicle involved in an accident and determines whether that accident is within the vicinity of the host vehicle. This innovation is intended to relieve concerns that spurious and malicious V2V communications transmitted by those trying to slow down the autonomous network by better identifying those communications. A technology for better analyzing traffic flow to make sure that a self-driving car safely crosses an intersection is reflected within U.S. Patent No. 8977420, which is titled Vehicle Procession Control Through a Traffic Intersection. This patent protects for GM a method for controlling vehicle procession by monitoring movement of a first vehicle proceeding from a stopped position and controlling a second vehicle’s control system to synchronize movement so that the second vehicle crosses the intersection after the first vehicle and at the same velocity. This innovation is intended to reduce the time delays associated with facilitating a traffic flow through a road intersection.
On-road maneuverability while a car is in an autonomous driving mode is at the center of U.S. Patent No. 9096267, titled Efficient Data Flow Algorithms for Autonomous Lane Changing, Passing and Overtaking Behaviors. The method for making a lane change maneuver by an autonomous vehicle claimed here involves providing a planned route for a vehicle to follow, providing a vehicle controller that receives the route and controls the steering, brakes and throttle, initiating a lane-change maneuver by identifying a lane-change zone and processing a reroute request that causes a vehicle to change from one lane to an adjacent one. A technique that helps a car see the road and better determine road safety conditions are discussed within U.S. Patent No. 9090264, which is titled Vision-Based Wet Road Surface Detection. It protects for GM a method for determining a wet road surface condition by capturing an image exterior of the vehicle, detecting a potential object on the ground surface of the road, identifying a feature point on that object, comparing that feature point to the same feature point in an image captured at a different moment in time and determining whether the ground surface includes a mirror effect reflective surface. This technology was developed to provide a proactive solution for dealing with wet roads to keep autonomous vehicles well under control during wet conditions.
With 25 U.S. patents, Ford has a much smaller autonomous driving patent portfolio than GM but we managed to find some interesting technologies. U.S. Patent No. 9096150, issued under the title Autonomous Vehicle with Reconfigurable Seats, protects a vehicle with a passenger compartment containing at least one seat configured to move, with the help of a motor, from a front-facing position to a rear-facing position while the vehicle is operating in an autonomous mode. This innovation would enable passengers seated in the front of the car to turn around and better interact with other passengers while the car is navigating itself. Tools for ensuring that a driver is available if needed are described within U.S. Patent No. 8874301, which is titled Autonomous with Driver Presence and Physiological Monitoring. It protects a road transportation vehicle with an autonomous driving control with a setup mode for specifying a driving route and a driver sensing system for sensing both a driver’s presence and the driver’s physiological state. Not only does this innovation check the status of the driver so the car knows if it can enter or leave an autonomous driving mode safely, it can also provide a determination that the driver has suffered a medical emergency so that the proper authorities can be contacted. Like GM, Ford also has developed technology for improving how autonomous vehicles interact with others on the road, as we can see in U.S. Patent No. 9079587, which is titled Autonomous Control in a Dense Vehicle Environment. It claims a method implemented in the computer of a first vehicle which involves receiving sets of data from multiple vehicles, analyzing the data sets using statistical techniques, generating a virtual map of a probable environment around the first vehicle and predicting a path of the first vehicle based on the virtual map. This system is intended to improve upon data collection techniques used to determine an autonomous vehicle’s environment so that it can be operated in dense traffic driving situations.
As we’ve noted elsewhere, Fiat Chrysler is an Italian-American company with London headquarters so it seems sort of suspect to continue considering them as part of the Big Three. In any event, the most recent patent we could find for an autonomous navigation technology was issued to FCA in 2007, showing us that there’s not a ton of development going on at the company. It’s interesting to note that the first-place overall in the autonomous driving R&D sector is California-based Google, which holds 145 U.S. patents in this field.