Leading the way to the autonomous driving future

2 mins read

The UK is moving closer to the autonomous driving future even though significant legislative and technological barriers have yet to be overcome.

But when will it be possible to use a fully autonomous vehicle on Britain’s roads? Understanding when autonomous driving functions are likely to be permitted could be crucial in guiding innovators about when to patent their inventions in order to optimise return on investment.

For example, certain ‘assisted technologies’ such as lane centring assist are already in use on many cars and well known to drivers in the UK. It would therefore be best to file patent applications directed to improvements in these technologies quickly. In other instances, where the market is not yet ready for a specific technological feature, innovators may prefer to keep their innovations as ‘trade secrets’ to avoid eroding the 20-year monopoly that patents provide.

To illustrate this further, traffic jam chauffeur systems, also known as automated lane keeping systems or ALKS have recently been approved for use on the road in Germany in certain situations. These systems could also soon be permitted in a wider range of situations and in more countries.

In the UK, for example, ALKS could soon be written into the Highways Code for use on motorways only, as long as provision is made to return control of the vehicle to the driver if required. It will be important to judge when the technology will be legally and commercially viable if companies want to make the most of the 20-year monopoly that a patent affords them in the relevant jurisdiction.

SICK AG, a tech company based in Waldkirch, Germany, has recently secured patent protection at the European Patent Office (EPO) – EP 3663881 B1 - for a method of controlling an automated vehicle (AV) on the basis of estimated movement vectors.

This technology is capable of monitoring the movement of an object within view of an optical sensor and storing it as a motion vector. This information can then be applied intelligently to help control the vehicle and prevent collisions. Instead of stopping if an object is detected nearby, the motion vector allows the vehicle to take evasive action – for example, by altering its speed. 

This patent is likely to cover elements of ALKS and could become an important commercial asset in the near future, particularly if the company is able to license its technology to other innovators.

Looking further to the future, the adoption of fully autonomous driving and connected vehicles (i.e., vehicles that can communicate with other vehicles or road infrastructure), appears to be several years away and there has been little push for the widespread introduction of this technology so far.

However, Sony has recently submitted a patent application to the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) - WO2022194447 A1 - for a system that is capable of transmitting information on a traffic signal device via a modulated light beacon.

The description of the technology explains how it can send a beacon with a GPS location attached, along with a command, to AVs in the vicinity. In this case, the 20-year monopoly for the patent has already started to ebb away, even though the market is not yet ready for the technology. The company could have chosen to delay filing its application until the timeline for the introduction of such technology is clear. 

However, the decision to file now, while technology focused on direct communication to autonomous vehicles is still early stage, means Sony may be able to claim a broader scope for patent protection, which could prove beneficial later on, as the market takes shape. 

It is natural for businesses to aim to maximise the scope of protection. However, they need to balance this carefully against the possibility that filing early could mean wasting the period of commercial protection that the patent gives them.

This is particularly important in an active research area where significant barriers to mainstream application of the technology remain.

Author details: Chris Froud is a partner and Alex Ford is a senior associate at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.