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Friday, January 27, 2017

Patent data reveals autonomous vehicle surprises

By Richard Hamer

Any reader of social media knows that the leaders in autonomous vehicle research are Google and Tesla. Right?

In fact, the most active patent filer in the field is General Motors. Other traditional car companies also have a bigger presence than the well promoted and popularly perceived leaders. Chinese companies are very active in the field also.

Although not all patents are commercialised, the level of patent filings is a good indicator of a general level of research activity. Patent filing data throws up some other initially surprising information.

For example, around half the autonomous vehicle/robotics patents are not for on-road vehicles at all, but for domestic, industrial and off-road use, such as autonomous farming or mining. The autonomous lawnmower is big. With some thought this makes sense. It would be great to automate jobs like ploughing, harvesting, hauling minerals or for that matter mowing the lawn. The environment is less complex than the on-road environment and automated equipment can feed back real time information, for example about soil properties or yield, and facilitate planning and management.

Another initially surprising area of emphasis is the last stage of delivery, that is from road to door. Again, with thought, this is not surprising at all. An autonomous delivery vehicle is of limited use if it can only bring the delivery to the roadside.

Many autonomous vehicles under development are starting to look less like cars than like robots. In apparent convergence, robots are starting to have the capacity to act as autonomous vehicles.

Despite the hype, drones are almost off the radar. This is not quite so easy to understand. It simply may be that while drones already have great value for mapping and surveillance, they have practical load imitations in terms of delivery of passengers or goods.

So the future as told by patent filings is that we will see autonomous vehicles from the major car makers as well as from Google and Tesla. We will see more autonomous vehicles farming, mining and mowing the lawn. Autonomous delivery vehicles will be able to deliver packages to the door. Robots and autonomous vehicles will tend to converge. Drones for general delivery and transport are, however, some way off.

At the current rate of change, whether the crystal ball of patent filings is reliable will soon be seen.

* Based on data published in the online report: Innography, Robot Innovation (2016), available at

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