Driverless car technology – not such a risky ride after all?

News that Google has unveiled its self-driving car prototype raises an important issue surrounding the interests of traditional automotive manufacturers in the brave new world envisaged by this maverick technology giant

News that Google has unveiled its self-driving car prototype raises an important issue surrounding the interests of traditional automotive manufacturers in the brave new world envisaged by this maverick technology giant.

The significant breadth of Google’s IP portfolio in relation to driverless car technology is evidence of its ambition in this exciting area of tech research. At present, the firm has several granted US patents relating to driverless technology. It also has a raft of European and international patent applications relating to areas such as user interfaces and predictive vehicle control systems.

This portfolio, when considered in combination with Google's advanced mapping, vehicle scheduling and traffic prediction patent portfolio – many inventions of which have already been implemented in Google Maps – seems to point to the company wanting to introduce the personal car into the world of public transportation. This could mean privately owned cars being replaced by ubiquitous, publicly available personal transportation pods, for example.

As a relative newcomer, Google has the luxury of not having to align its research and development activities with those of traditional car manufacturers and it also benefits from a lower level of risk. This particular project is firmly rooted in speculative R&D, and is not tied in with its core business model. When coupled with the company's ability to invest large amounts of capital (about $200m for this particular venture) without risking losing everything if it fails, this puts it in a very strong position. Essentially, Google has an opportunity to impose change on, and completely re-imagine, the automotive industry.

Google claims it wants to capitalise on the commerciality of its prototype within a relatively short period. However, it seems unlikely this will take the form of mass-producing cars, particularly as the company has been giving indications that it expects to license its technology to large players in the automotive industry.

This licensing model could work if, for example, outside pressures push the car industry towards the driverless car. However, it is more than likely that Google will encounter a fair amount of reluctance from car manufacturers, particularly if the driverless car is perceived to be a step toward using cars as public transportation, which may result in a reduction in the number of cars on the road.

In this sense, traditional car manufacturers cannot afford to take such risks in developing driverless vehicles, instead focusing on technologies that help drivers. Most driver assistance technology – reversing indicators, side/rear cameras, and so on – is aimed at increasing safety and security and easing the burden on drivers, not replacing them.

Having launched this early-stage prototype, all eyes will be on Google’s next move in relation to driverless car technology. Given the legislative and significant cultural challenges associated with introducing the world to public transit driverless cars, it will be an uphill struggle. It is a huge leap from prototype development to mass production of vehicles, even for a company with Google’s resources and  agile business model.

But if the car industry refuses to play ball, this may be a route Google decides to take. It might start by implementing driverless mass transit pods in a relatively high-profile city centre, and if this catches on, it could extend the initiative to other areas. This type of deployment model seems to be working well for public transport bicycle schemes and socialised electric cars.

For Google, the risks involved in this type of deployment are limited, not just because of the dominance of its IP portfolio, but because if the venture failed, brand damage would be limited. For this dynamic, risk-ready brand, any failure would do little to harm its reputation, and any success just might change the world.

Denis Keseris is a patent attorney at Withers & Rogers with specialist knowledge of the electronics and communications sectors

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