IP Information & News

The future of driving — why you must protect new safety innovations with IP

Dr Terence Broderick

By Dr Terence Broderick

Patent Attorney

The automotive sector is undergoing a technological revolution, as electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure is rolled-out and progress is made on the development of connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs). It’s likely that, within the next two decades, our road-going experience will be very different.

While this brings huge benefits for drivers, passengers, congestion and the environment, there’s a need to ensure that appropriate safety measures are in place to protect road users in the new age of driving technology. The modern vehicle is already very safe, however around 25,000 people a year still die in traffic accidents — a large proportion of which are due to human error. While humans remain behind the wheels of a car, accidents will always happen — and with fully-autonomous vehicles still some time away, reducing the number of human-error accidents must be high on the automotive sector’s agenda.

Despite this, some innovators are being dissuaded from securing IP rights for new vehicle safety technologies. While elements of this are understandable — their high-profile nature and the assumption that your competitors may have got there first — this is the wrong approach to take. It’s always worth consulting a professional before making a call on your IP, especially since the potential benefits when it comes to protecting these technologies are so valuable. There is also the risk that failure to put down a place holder and protect your innovation could result in your competitor gaining protection that blocks you from the market. Here’s a breakdown of the current situation regarding vehicle safety technologies and why it’s so important to seek IP protection for your innovations.

The background on EV and CAV safety

While EVs and AVs grab the headlines, the EU went relatively below the radar this year when it set out regulations around the technologies set to make cars safer. These include Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA), drowsiness and attention detection systems, alcohol interlock installation facilitation (a breathalyser that disables engines if the driver has been drinking) as well as distraction recognition and prevention features. The EU intends for such features to be mandatory on vehicles from 2022, which guarantees that manufacturers are already making plans — whether they’re looking at developing safety tech themselves or buying from an external provider.

For some manufacturers, these systems have been on the agenda for a while. At CES 2015, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) announced that it had developed a system which used ‘attention sensors’ to monitor a driver’s face and eyes to reduce distracted and drowsy driving. As a premium manufacturer, driver comfort is always going to be a priority for JLR, and this technology utilises autonomous driving features to reduce the potential for accidents caused by inattentive driving.

Some manufacturers are already pushing way beyond just looking at drowsiness and attention detection. Ford recently collaborated with Aachen University to develop technology embedded in a driver’s seat to monitor heart function. It’s thought that sensors can be used to monitor blood sugar, breathlessness, sweat and sleepiness in drivers — which can each be used to infer deteriorating health or driving capability.

Such developments signal that safety is clearly high on the agenda, even though the regulations are yet to be formally introduced. However, it’s not just down to the likes of JLR to innovate in safety tech — the initial release of the EU regulations this year indicates that similar technology will soon need to be available across market segments, from low-priced budget to high-end luxury vehicles.

Safeguarding safety with IP rights

The need for such widespread availability of these technologies, for different applications and price points, means that it’s vital to consider IP protection to help you carve out a position in the market, even if your competitors are developing similar products. There are three key benefits to doing this:

1. Enhance your position

Firstly, a patent covering such a useful piece of technology adds value to your product line, strengthens your brand and can be used as leverage in negotiations with your customers. Put simply, by patenting your product, you’re able to lock-in customers and prevent them going elsewhere to buy a similar product. If they were to do so, they would be guilty of patent infringement, as would the competitor from whom they source the product. Legal proceedings could be used to prevent the competitor from supplying your customer if it wasn’t possible to reach a suitable settlement.

Secondly, if you’re infringing someone else’s patent, the presence of your own patent on related technology can give you leverage in persuading the owner of the patent to grant you a licence — particularly if the respective competing products solve different problems — either because the third party is also infringing one of your patents or because the technology covered by your patents is desirable to them.

2. Enable collaboration

On a vehicle, the level of integration between the respective pieces of technology is high and this is only expected to increase as the technology in vehicles becomes more software-focussed and less mechanical. Your product will need to be compatible with other pieces of technology on the same vehicle. If you need to disclose your technology to another company working on a related product, so that you can work together to bring your products to market, a patent application will provide you with some protection. Being confident in your interoperability with other products on the same vehicle will help you when you try to sell to a manufacturer or another part of such a highly integrated supply chain.

Joint development arrangements between companies in the automotive sector is also increasing, as companies require expertise outside their core competencies to develop new technical solutions. Protecting your IP during a collaborative project provides clarity for both parties and ensures that your investment in the enterprise is secured.

3. Add value to your company

Strong patent portfolios are very appealing to investors. A patent covering a piece of technology which addresses an important problem like driver attentiveness is an asset for a company trying to seek investment — so exploring your IP options can add some all-important value to your company.

Take the next step

These three benefits are by no means exhaustive but are critical to your success. If you’re developing safety technology for EVs and CAVs, it’s always advisable to seek specialist assistance to help you maximise your return on investment and realise your business goals.

As an expert in protecting software in the automotive sector, feel free to get in touch with me at tsb@udl.co.uk to discuss your options in detail.

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