You've heard the self-driving car is coming. Thirteen of the world's 14 largest automakers, including Audi, BMW, Ford, GM, and Tesla, have said they will bring autonomous vehicles to market within the next five or so years. Twelve of the 14 largest technology companies, such as Apple, Google, Intel, and Samsung, plan to build the technologies needed to support and operate autonomous vehicles.
Combined, they are spending billions to develop advanced sensor and battery technologies, futuristic human-machine interfaces, intelligent driving computers, and other technologies that are essential to removing the human element (you) from the driving equation in the name safety. Or so they'd like you to think.
These companies are not doing all this for purely altruistic reasons. Like any transformative technology, the revenue opportunities in the AV space are enormous. According to a recent study by Intel and research firm Strategy Analytics, AVs will be the backbone of a $7 trillion-dollar a year marketplace by 2050. "Once money is involved, as innovators transition into commercial enterprises, things get complicated," says Bryan Reimer, Research Scientist in the MIT's AgeLab and the Associate Director of The New England University Transportation Center at MIT.
One way things are starting to get complicated is that innovators seem to be more interested in protecting their inventions or innovations rather than transforming the future of mobility, the goal of all of the research and development. The fear is that courts will soon get clogged with patent lawsuits and innovation grinds to a halt. You've seen what patent wars have done in the smartphone sphere, as sued and countersued each other, which is why smartphones haven't evolved significantly in the past decade. What if the self-driving car gets stalled in the courtroom?
Can You Build an Autonomous Car Without Stepping on a Patent?
Ideally, there would be collaborative contractual development to further the AV cause. You've got chocolate. I have peanut butter. Let's work together for the betterment of humanity. Reimer says this type of concerted industry-wide effort is the only way mobility can really to be transformed, if indeed these vehicles are going to "communicate and work together over a standard network that has not yet been defined." In fact, some consolidation is appearing. Autoliv and Volvo have teamed up to form a new company Zenutity. Bosch and Daimler have a new co-development agreement. Others could follow. Even Google has patterned plenty with the big three automakers and said it now with other companies rather than trying to build the self-driving car all by itself.
Unfortunately, all AV innovators aren't ready to play well together. "Instead, they are primed to vehemently protect their intellectual property, or more broadly, talent, as usual," says Reimer. "Look at the impending fireworks between Google and , for instance."
Google's self-driving car project is widely considered to have kickstarted the autonomous evolution in 2009. Since its inception, Google has amassed hundreds of patents covering every aspect of software, hardware, and on-road behavior, especially in the vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure side. In 2016, Google's parent company Alphabet consolidated the company's self-driving car division under one banner, Waymo. Its primary mission is to commercialize Google's past and future efforts in the self-driving sector and protect the product it creates. Protect is the key word here.
One of Waymo's first acts was to against ride-share giant Uber in federal court, accusing it of patent infringement and trade secret misappropriation. The suit claims that engineer Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,000 technical documents from an internal Google server before resigning from the company to start his own, a self-driving truck company called Otto, in early 2016. Otto was then acquired by Uber a few months later for a reported $680 million. Waymo insists that Levandowski stole its technology with Uber's knowledge, and now as the Director of Uber's autonomous efforts, is currently using that ill-gotten research as the basis for Uber's driverless efforts. Uber and Levandowski deny the claims.
"This case is the first major battles over driverless car technology, and it promises to be a real nasty," says Jeanne Fromer, Professor of Law at New York University, co-director of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy at NYU.
While filing such a suit might seem like business as usual, Fromer says it is a much bigger deal than one might think: "Innovation in such as environment is typically cumulative when there is an awful lot of companies or people working in the same space at the same time. One innovation builds on another, builds on another. The consequence is that everybody is going to be infringing everybody's patents eventually."
For example, say you were to get a patent for creating a chair. No one has ever made a chair before. Then, I come along with the idea for a rocking chair. I patent it. Unfortunately, I can't build it. To make a rocking chair, I would have to build a chair, for which you have the patent. The same goes for you; you can't make a rocking chair because I have the patent for the rocker.
"The implication, in this case, is that everybody will be blocked from building the best version of the product being developed unless all participants play well together," explains Fromer, "thus stifling innovation." Companies could have learned from the 2012 legal battle (and subsequent battles) between Apple and Samsung over alleged patent infringement, which has retarded innovation in the smartphone market. But they haven't.
"If Waymo wins, it could reach a settlement with Uber, agreeing to cross-license the technology in question," explains Fromer. "Each company would benefit from the sharing information and you get a great marketplace because everyone is offering the best of all technologies. It's good for the patent holders and for consumers." However, Waymo could use such a ruling to not only halt Uber's progress in AVs, but take away the fruits of its labors. "This would essentially be a warning to others thinking about using Google-based technology: "Use it and we will crush you in court too," says Fromer.
A Host of Players
Is the fight for that intellectual property worth it, even if the resulting unpleasantries have the potential to slow innovation in the space down to a crawl? One has to wonder if the leaders in driverless car development seem to think so. It looks like the leaders in this space be are willing spend more time in court over the next five or so years protecting their self-driving patents than perfecting the driverless car the road.
The transition from driven to driverless have many socio-economic implications. And there are many big players involved. Beyond Uber, challengers to Waymo and its Google IP are mushrooming. Competition ranges from in-house programs at automakers Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen and Volvo, to GM's $581 million acquisition of Cruise Automation, Tesla's rapidly evolving Autopilot system and Ford's $1 billion backing of Argo AI, a Pittsburgh startup led by another former Google self-driving car engineer.
Patent disputes happen. It's a part of our system. They happen with plain old everyday human-driven cars, when automakers fight over intellectual property. These just get solved behind closed door. With so much money and the very future of mobility at stake with the rise of self-driving vehicles, things won't be so easy.
If one organization wins a key patent and doesn't want to share with others, or shares it at a price that makes it worthwhile difficult for others to continue development, then "no longer will it good enough to build an autonomous solution that can survive to become ubiquitous," says MIT's Reimer. "You have to also build one with clean IP. That is nearly be impossible, and will likely delay that the future of mobility promised by autonomy for decades."