While traditional automakers may be keen to avoid patent wars, as discussed in a previous blog post A Patent War Without Fighting, high tech companies developing innovative connected or autonomous vehicle technologies may not be so like minded. Traditional automakers can leverage their brand loyalties, partnerships, deeply integrated supply chains and significant manufacturing experience as competitive differentiators. However, high tech companies may derive a significant portion of their value through their patented innovation, making them more likely to assert their patents to protect their technologies and reach their business goals.
As high tech companies increasingly integrate their technologies with vehicles, there has been an upward trend in automobile-related patent litigation. Recently, self-driving car startup Voyage was sued by Sucxess for technology related to retrofitting cars with drive-by-wire kits. Sucxess, an “engineering-services firm” whose founder was formerly an engineer at a traditional automaker, claims that Voyage “wouldn’t exist without these cars … and [they] are getting some real value by using [Sucxess’s] patent.” Taking a page from the high tech playbook, Sucxess is trying to “make money with [their] own patents.”
In another recent example, American GNC Corp., a technology company that specializes in guidance, navigation, control and communications (GNCC), sued Toyota over autonomous car navigation patents. American GNC asserted three patents related to autonomous vehicle navigation that allegedly read on aspects of navigation, cruise control, and collision avoidance technology. Indeed, high tech companies trying to increase revenue may do so by leveraging the patent assets they have, which is commonplace in the high tech industry.
High tech companies, instead of the traditional automakers, appear to be responsible for the recent increase in the number of patent infringement suits in the automotive space. Historically, since there were only a few big traditional automakers in the U.S. and they had other strengths to leverage, it was easy for them to have a “gentlemen’s agreement” to not assert patents. But with the increased competition due to the significant number of new tech companies entering this space, the era of the gentlemen’s agreement may be replaced with an increase in patent battles as these tech companies port their monetization strategies to the automotive space.
It’s unclear how traditional automakers will react. They may battle it out, or they may continue to strive for their non-confrontational culture. For example, they may counter sue, obtain a license for the patented technology, or even pre-emptively acquire the company for its patent portfolio before any patent is asserted. Whether traditional automakers respond in kind or otherwise, they may now have to find new ways to navigate in their own space.