The race to achieve fully autonomous vehicles is channeling major automotive, optics, micro-processing, software, and GPS companies into a concentrated and competitive technological space. Patents are increasing exponentially and lawsuits are on the rise. The reasons for these intellectual property trends are manifold. Obviously, any rapidly emerging technology is going to be accompanied by a corresponding increase in patents. But, in the automotive industry, the enforcement of IP rights through litigation has generally been avoided in favor of brand differentiation and other forms of competition.
This has ensured the relatively unhampered development of automotive technology, and the industry and its consumers have benefited. Tech is threatening this standard and causing some consumers and investors to look on with apprehension for a patenting stalemate on the horizon.
Patenting stalemate defined
A patenting stalemate occurs when competing companies hold and enforce patents for technologies that must be used in conjunction to achieve some culminating technology—in this case, fully autonomous vehicles that minimize human risk. When this happens, unless some unlikely, new means of the invention is discovered, the technological achievement goes unrealized until the competitors agree to share their intellectual property. Meanwhile, the consumers (and human progress) suffer. Fortunately, some early attempts to corner critical technology in the realm of autonomous vehicles through litigation have been unsuccessful.
Broadcom versus Toyota
In Broadcom versus Toyota, Broadcom, a semiconductor and infrastructure software company, requested a judgment of infringement on several patents, including patent 6,937,187, which describes a faster method of determining the location of a satellite signal receiver, such as a cell phone, by using multiple approximate locations. After years of litigation, this request was denied by the US International Trade Commission.
Waymo versus Uber
More successfully, Alphabet’s autonomous driving company, Waymo, sought relief for alleged infringement on patent 9,368,936—a circuit that allows a LIDAR device to be controlled with just one transistor—against Uber and won a settlement of roughly a quarter of a billion dollars. Despite this victory, the case increased the visibility of the patent in question, which eventually came to the attention of Eric Swildens.
Swilden meets Waymo
Swildens had been the CTO of Speedera Networks when it was forced to sell its entire stock to a competitor who had sued it for patent infringement. (Content delivery networks are becoming a critical component in achieving low- to zero-latency navigation information, a feature that is critical for fully autonomous vehicles.) Swildens reasoned that such a basic circuit must have prior art and began to review related patents. He found that Waymo’s patent was a duplication of technology found in several antecedent patents, including, significantly, patent 7,969,558. Swildens submitted his findings in a report to the US Patent and Trademark Office, who then found that Waymo’s patent was invalid.
The convergence of tech companies into the automotive sector will likely cause an increasing number of infringement suits around autonomous vehicle technology. The overlapping of so many domains invites new comparisons that will reveal unexpected cases. The next couple of years of autonomous vehicle development and surrounding patent law will be of great interest and consequence.