Posted on 12/12/2018

Technology on the move – a summary of the EPO’s 2018 report on patents and self-driving vehicles

The report highlights the rise of patent application for self-driving vehicle technology.

Annual European patent applications relating to self-driving vehicles have risen by more than 330% compared with 2011, a recent report published by the European Patent Office (EPO) has found.

The report, published on 6 November 2018 and titled “Patents and self-driving vehicles”, includes the results of analysis of the EPO’s patent database, and provides an insight into current trends and emerging leaders in this evolving technology.

In the past 10 years almost 18,000 European patent applications have been filed for self-driving vehicle technology, with close to 4,000 applications filed in 2017 alone. Applicants from Europe and the USA have played a significant part in this increase, with around 1,400 patent applications each in 2017.

Applications are spread across a number of industries as is to be expected in this crossover technological field. Automated vehicle handling, the interplay of vehicles and the electricity grid and sensing technology are the areas in which protection is sought by applicants in the transport and automotive industries. Whereas, unsurprisingly, applications for the underlying hardware and software as well as vehicle connectivity and communications, are largely being filed by tech companies.

Both Samsung and LG are in the top 5 applicants for self-driving vehicle inventions at the EPO for the 2011-17 period. However, although the top 25 applicants account for 40% of applications, the remaining 60% are held by hundreds of other applicants. This is a reflection of this young and developing technological field, with many players keen to get a foothold.

The UK were a top 5 contributor to self-driving vehicle innovation in Europe over the period from 2011 to 2017 (439 patent applications at the EPO), following behind Sweden (703), France (715) and Germany (2,151). The UK’s worldwide market share in applications relating to the technology remained stable at 2.9% between the periods of 2000-10 and 2011-17. An increase in applications relating to both computing and vehicle handling was observed between these same periods, which is a promising indicator of innovation and growth both in the UK’s tech and automotive industries.

One interesting aspect of the report is that it anticipates commercial availability of fully automated vehicles only from 2025, but shows that as early as 2000 almost 700 applications were filed relating to the technology (the data does not go back further).  Such patents would, of course, have expired several years before full automation is expected. It is perhaps worth asking whether these patents relate to technology that has already reached the market (lane detection, automated wipers/braking and so forth) or whether some patents from innovators at the forefront of the technology might expire before the inventions are commercialised.  If so, manufacturers may have more freedom to use and develop the technology, provided they are conscious of the patent landscape (although it is to be expected that many of those early innovators will have continued to patent improvements to their technology).

In summary, the report documents the dramatic rise in patent applications on self-driving vehicles at the EPO in recent years. The EPO have recorded a growth rate that is more than 20 times faster than that for patent applications in all other fields over the 2011-17 period. It would therefore seem that the automotive and tech industries are gearing up to bring self-driving vehicles to the widespread market in the near future.

If you are looking to protect your invention, or have any other questions relating to patent protection, please do get in touch to speak with one of our attorneys.

Wilson Gunn