Automotive patents cover various innovative and technological components in the auto industry. Patents are usually held by car manufacturers and supply firms, but other companies around the world also hold them.

Autonomous-Driving Patents

In the area of self-driving cars, Germany leads the world in patent filing. Between 2010 and 2017, over 5,800 auto-driving patents were filed. More than 50 percent were filed by traditional auto manufacturers, and almost 30 percent were filed by established companies in the auto supply industry. German automotive companies registered for 52 percent of the patents for autonomous driving.

Of the companies in the top 10 for patent filing, including suppliers and car makers, six of them were German. The other four companies were the following:

  • GM 
  • Ford 
  • Google 
  • Toyota

Bosch, a tech-supplier, filed over 950 patents, followed by Continental and Audi.

Germany enjoys a high-level position in the auto segment, so auto manufacturers in the country are in an ideal position to gain a competitive edge in the market for self-driving vehicles. Customers looking for premium cars have the resources to pay more money for assistant systems. They also have the resources to purchase completely autonomous cars. 

Once these self-driving vehicles are widely available on the mass market, Germany can sell them at a favorable price. The country has a strong customer base in both markets. Germany also led the world in establishing rules for driverless cars.

It makes sense for auto manufacturers to also focus on green vehicles. There's pressure, especially across China and Europe, to move to no-carbon or low-carbon economies. There's also an expected increase in emissions regulation.

Tech Companies and Ride-hailing Firms

Researchers looking into automotive patents weren't always able to tell how close some patents came to actually being applied or the quality level of the patents. There's some complexity when you consider partnerships between the following: 

  • Tech companies
  • Car makers 
  • Ride-hailing firms

These partnerships are forming all the time. With so many technological innovations constantly occurring in the automotive industry, even tech giants are getting a foothold in the space.

Apple, Facebook, and Google are making big strides toward creating different visions of mobility. These companies want to focus on driver experience, and they have a wealth of resources to pour into making these visions a reality. As a result, they could steal some of the limelight — and take away some of the profits — from the car-making companies that understandably expected to dominate the market of self-driving technology and car connectivity.

Google, which once thought about creating its own fleet of vehicles, is arguably the biggest tech contender in this space. The company has kept pace with leading auto companies in its patenting of intellectual property.

When it comes to mobility services, which includes app development and navigation technologies, tech companies filed 55 patents compared to the 44 filed by automakers. Uber held last place with only two patents, and Google led with 30 patents, followed by Apple, with just 14.

Ford's Autonomous Vehicle Patents

Ford Motor Co. has ideas to design the inside of autonomous vehicles to more closely resemble people's living spaces, such as conference rooms or kitchens. To that end, Ford has patented a retractable table to use in driverless cars

In self-driving cars, the interior setup can be completely different from traditional cars, since drivers don't have to look at the road. Instead, seats could be placed around a table and passengers could face inward. They might play games, eat, or work on their laptops. When not being used, the table would retract into the floor. 

The table would also include an airbag. In the event of a crash, the airbag would inflate to reduce the likelihood of an occupant having an impact with the table. Although the table idea is a glimpse into a potential future of driverless cars, Ford may or may not bring the idea to market. Ford has filed patents for other features in driverless cars, including a removable wheel, seats that can be reconfigured, and a movie projector screen.

The automaker said it has plans to introduce a Level 4 autonomous vehicle. This is projected to take place in 2021, and the vehicle will be for commercial use, such as package delivery or ride-hailing.

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