According to statistics published by the EPO (76-page / 790KB PDF) on patent applications in 'self-driving' vehicle (SDV) technologies filed with its office, there has been a 334% rise in the patent applications filed for autonomous driving between 2011 and 2017, and seven of the ten most prolific applicants over that period are either technology or telecoms companies.
Samsung, Intel and Qualcomm are the three businesses to have filed the greatest number of driverless car technology patents, making up more than 10% of all such applications made to the EPO between 2011 and 2017. Just three automotive businesses – Bosch, Toyota and Continental – appear in the EPO's top 10.
The EPO said that patent applications for driverless cars technologies, which span areas such as perception, analysis and decision making, computing, vehicle handling, communications and smart logistics, have risen much faster than patent applications for other technologies during the same period, for which there has only been a 16% rise since 2011.
The interest from technology and telecoms companies in driverless cars technology patents reflects the fact that more companies are entering the automotive market as a result of digital disruption.
"For the first time, giant automotive companies producing millions of vehicles every year have to adapt disruptive innovations stemming from other powerful companies in information and communications technology," the EPO said. "SDVs will also disrupt many established industries and give rise to new ones. The race is on with new entrants that have no track record in vehicle design, but a lead in software, sensors, AI and communication. Automotive companies have entered into it with massive research and innovation capacities and a long experience of established vehicle technologies."
The EPO's study also shed light on the patent strategies of businesses that are developing driverless cars technology. It showed that many businesses are protecting inventions with "families" of patents filed with multiple patent offices around the world.
"The average size of patent families, indicating the number of countries in which patent protection was sought for one invention, is significantly bigger in SDV fields," the EPO said. "Patent protection on SDV inventions is also more frequently sought with regional (EPO) or international patent offices (PCT route), suggesting that broad international protection is critical in the SDV market."
Europe, the US, Japan, South Korea and China are the five most popular jurisdictions for applying for driverless car patents, according to the EPO.