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Patent filings point to car industry's future

September 22, 2017
Pressured to keep up with Silicon Valley companies working on autonomous –car technology and ride sharing, automakers have sharply boosted their U.S. patent filings over the past five years.
 
In 2016, 10 of the world’s largest car makers submitted 9,700 patent applications, up 110 percent from 2012, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
 
"The pressure is on us to invent before the Valley does," said Bill Coughlin, chief executive of Ford Global Technologies, which handles Ford’s patent and copyrights. "The last thing we want is to be a fast follower."
 
A growing number of filings seem straight out of science fiction, covering inventions intended to help people pay less attention to the road when they drive—or while they aren’t actually driving at all.
 
Ford seeks a patent for a drone system that would locate passengers who call a self-driving robo-taxi, while another Ford filing, envisioning self-driving cars with conference-room-style seating, seeks to patent a special air bag that will fit into a center table to protect the occupants facing it.
 
For its part, BMW wants to patent a system that would allow an autonomous vehicle to communicate with pedestrians or human drivers in other vehicles, through visual signs, beeps or even speech.
 
Hyundai, meanwhile, seeks to protect a device that would allow a driver to exit from the car and then push a button to park it. Toyota is looking to patent a technology that makes certain car parts, such as door pillars, appear to be see-through.
 
Patent holders have exclusive rights on an invention for as long as two decades after the grant date, an important weapon for vehicle companies looking for a technological edge in an evolving industry. First-movers often enjoy benefits, such as revenue from licensing their creations to others. Technology from Toyota’s groundbreaking Prius was licensed by Ford, for instance.
 
Juergen Reiner, a partner at Oliver Wyman, said car companies have an edge in creating automotive hardware, but will struggle to catch up on the software front. Unlike Silicon Valley companies, traditional vehicle makers face huge overhead and capital requirements for their factories and product lines.
 
"It’s not a well-balanced battle," Reiner said. "They need to develop cars and have other distractions."
 
 

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