17Dec 2015

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) proposed today a new set of rules that will govern the operation of autonomous vehicles on the state’s roads. Simultaneously, Google announced that it was spinning off its self-driving car unit into a standalone business setting up the stage for a fleet of self-driving taxis that will compete head-to-head with Uber, which itself is investing heavily in self-driving vehicles. Tesla, GM, Mercedes Benz, Ford and several others have not been shy in the media, all announcing efforts and prototypes towards autonomous driving.

The Google (or perhaps more aptly under its new name of Alphabet) pod-like self-driving vehicles are powered by lithium ion batteries, so it is fair to say that it is only a matter of time before electric powertrains become the foundation for this new vision of autonomous cars. The race is early, still very early, but the stakes are potentially immense as several players pursue their vision for autonomous electric vehicles.

One of the early metrics of a race worth gauging is each player’s present IP position. It is not a simple question to answer but one can glean some insight — autonomous electric vehicles are very sophisticated systems using complex components, so one would expect that intellectual property will play a central role both in the development of this market segment as well as eventual litigation among the participants.

The next two charts show the extent of the present IP position for a select number of companies. The chart on the left shows the number of US patents issued since 2000 covering two categories: i) battery technology including battery battery materials, manufacturing and battery management systems, and ii) technologies related to designing and building electric vehicles. For the time being, I will focus this post on the “electric” portion of this race, addressing the battery and electric systems for these vehicles — leaving autonomous driving for others to discuss. I assume that the number of issued US patents will reflect within reason the amount of know-how a company possesses in battery and EV technologies.

patents

 Patent positions related to autonomous electric vehicles

 

The first observation that stands out is the large number of US patents that Toyota has secured in both areas of batteries and electric vehicle systems. They eclipse the number of patents issued to Tesla and GM. Honda and Ford, two companies that have been relatively quiet in the media, are clearly building their foundations. The German automakers, judging from their US patent portfolio, seem to be lagging — though this should not be misinterpreted as losing or lagging in the race. Apple has not yet publicly announced that it plans to build cars, but rumors abound in this respect and as such, the companies is categorized with the automakers. Their portfolio, however, is heavily biased towards battery technology, courtesy of their prowess in consumer devices.

Automakers rely heavily on suppliers of components and subsystems. Among the well-established ones, Robert Bosch stands out with a sizable bag of issued US patents covering both batteries and electrical vehicles. Samsung and LG, two large suppliers of electronic components to the Korean car makers, have a strong IP position in building batteries owing to their respective battery divisions, SDI and LG Chem — but there is not much evidence of strong IP in electrical powertrain and electric vehicles. It is also surprising to see Delphi and Johnson Controls lagging in both categories — could this mean that the automakers are choosing to own and control key technologies instead of outsourcing them to their traditional supply chain partners? Time will tell.

In this evolving race and ambitious vision for the future, these statistics are merely just perturbations for the time being. However, given enough time, they could amplify and influence the outcome of who will win and who will not. Stay tuned!