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How to patent autonomous vehicle simulations

Dr Terence Broderick

By Dr Terence Broderick

Senior Patent Attorney

We are all being led to believe that a world in which we’re driven around by fully autonomous vehicles is just around the corner. In reality, this is still some way off, as more proof is needed to show that autonomous vehicles are safe enough for mass adoption. With an estimated 8.8 billion miles of road testing required to achieve this level of confidence, advanced simulations are our chief hope to make this a realistic vision any time soon. This means that we are set to see a huge amount of innovation in simulation systems — and if you’re innovating in this space, you may be wondering: can I patent my simulation technology?

The case for autonomous vehicle simulations

Both Ansys (a modelling solutions specialist) and Microsoft recently admitted that advanced simulation tools are one of the few options capable of delivering the testing environment required to deliver fully autonomous vehicles.

Even if this is successful, RAND Corporation has speculated that the most advanced simulation methods may still find it difficult to demonstrate the safety of autonomous vehicles with the required certainty.

However, even without wholly delivering the reassurance that we need, advanced simulation tools will surely help us well along the way by highlighting the scenarios that carry the most uncertainty, and perhaps even identifying previously unforeseen situations. This will enable us to make improvements to the physical environment to measure and mitigate risks.

Can you patent a method of simulating an autonomous vehicle?

As with many questions about software-related patents, the answer is an emphatic 'maybe'. Simulation methods are treated as computer-implemented inventions and therefore will only be patentable if they can be shown to solve a technical problem in a new and non-obvious way.

Patent law has had a rough relationship with computer-implemented inventions over the years but recently, in G1/19, the European Patent Office (EPO) sought to clarify that it approaches patent applications that cover simulation methods in much the same way as other software inventions. This means that it may well be possible to obtain a patent if the simulation has an outcome that is used in a technical context.

How to know if your simulation method has an outcome that is used in a technical context?

While it’s impossible to know for sure, you would be best to think about what you’re simulating in terms of the technical features being modelled and what their outcome is.

For example, the simulation of an autonomous vehicle stopping because a person has stepped out in front can be thought of in a number of ways. One is in terms of human factors — the identification of the obstacle, the action in response and then the response itself. Another is to think in terms of the data processing steps and precise analytical techniques the modelled vehicle uses to determine the obstacle and response.

The latter is more likely to convince the EPO that a patent could be granted as it focuses on the technical context — essentially, what is going on inside the simulated vehicle, rather than what ‘a driver’ would do.

When should you file a patent application?

While there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ time to file, this must happen before you disclose the invention to any third party. This will give you at least provisional protection by preventing the third party from taking the disclosure and filing it in their own patent application.

How much information is required in a patent application?

A patent application needs to disclose the invention in such a way that a skilled person can implement the invention without undue burden. In the context of a method of simulation, this is likely to mean that it will be very difficult to get a patent if the flow of data and the processes being applied to the data are not clearly described. This can be a very difficult judgement to make, so our advice would always be to speak with a patent attorney before filing a patent application.

If you’re developing technology to simulate autonomous vehicles, get in touch with me directly at tsb@udl.co.uk for an initial chat.

You may also be interested to read more about our expertise in software and electric vehicles.

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