IP protection in the autonomous vehicle space

Autonomous technology is one of the most significant developments in the transportation sector. A growing number of automotive and electronics organisations across the world are working with new clients to create self-driving vehicles and the race is heating up to own IP rights and protect various technological advancements in this domain. The rate of patent application filing in this area is unprecedented as automotive sectors work hard to strengthen their patent portfolios.

Autonomous vehicles and IP protection

An ‘autonomous vehicle’ is defined as a vehicle that can sense its environment and operate without human intervention. According to the Society of Automotive Engineers International, there are five levels of development, from Level 0 (ie, no automation) to Level 5 (ie, full autonomy) (standard J3016). Autonomous vehicles rely on sensors, actuators, complex algorithms, machine-learning systems and powerful processors to execute software. However, since 2014, when the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Alice Corp v CLS Bank International on subject-matter patentability, obtaining patents that are based on algorithms and software has become more complicated. As a result, most autonomous vehicle companies keep their technologies and machine-learning data as trade secrets. Opting for trade secret protection can provide a significant advantage over a competitor, as it allows the entity to continue improving its products by channelling resources directly to their development. Also, this form of protection is not nearly as expensive or time consuming as the patent prosecution process. But trade secrets can have their disadvantages as competitors can sometimes reverse-engineer software algorithms. Second, keeping autonomous vehicle data secret means that consumers and authorities are unable to fairly and completely evaluate the proficiency and safety of the AI systems that guide the vehicles, as these entities are highly dependent on anecdotal evidence.

Another major challenge is that patent laws are deficient when it comes to securing protection for autonomous vehicle frameworks. For example, patents cannot be utilised to secure machine-learning data, AI preparing sets or a software engineer's specific articulation of source code. Further, given the AI process used in autonomous vehicle frameworks and iterative/gradual advancement of the hidden calculations, it is often difficult to precisely portray the strategies or elements of an autonomous vehicle framework as required for a patent grant. An innovation can qualify for patent protection if it:

  • improves computer hardware innovation;
  • is a current mechanical procedure linked with electronic sensors and actuators; or
  • is a practical application that improves the working of autonomous vehicles


It is worth bearing in mind that this field is developing at such speed that that a patent may be futile or out of date by the time it is issued. Obtaining IP protection for autonomous vehicles and related advancements necessitates cautious contemplation. In order to continue building important IP assets for vehicular equipment or assembling forms, organisations must update their IP strategies. This depends on ongoing patent case law and requires considering proposed changes to existing patent resolutions to decide how to best secure programming-based developments for patents, trade secrets and copyrights. IP protection for autonomous vehicles is as inventive as the field itself, and the law will continue to develop rapidly.

This is an insight article whose content has not been commissioned or written by the IAM editorial team, but which has been proofed and edited to run in accordance with the IAM style guide.

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