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Carmakers all over the world are teaming up with tech firms to fast track their development of fully or partially autonomous vehicles and ride sharing technology. 

This year, GM invested $500 million in Lyft and outlined its plans to develop an on-demand network of self-driving cars. In 2015, Germany’s biggest carmakers, Audi, BMW and Daimler jointly purchased a digital mapping service from Nokia for more than €2.8 billion to ensure that the carmakers do not have to depend on Google Maps. According to The Economist, despite the significant investment by established carmakers, Google remains the leading exponent of autonomous vehicle technology. 

The Patents

Google have filed hundreds of US patents that are directed towards autonomous vehicles. Approximately 195 of these Google patents have now been published. The published Google patent applications show that Google is investing heavily in developing computer software for autonomous cars. For example, the most recently published Google patents are directed towards ‘vehicle perception systems’ and ‘vehicle decision making systems’. These include using a fleet of autonomous vehicles to detect unusual or changed road conditions (e.g. bad traffic or changes to lane markers) that are fed into a digital road map to optimise the driving route of other autonomous vehicles in the fleet (US 20150254986 and US 9321461) and a method of determining whether a vehicle should continue through an intersection (US 20160035223).

Google have also filed US patent applications that appear to be directed towards ride sharing applications. For example, US Patent No. 9194168 describes a system that is used to automatically unlock an autonomous vehicle when it is within a set distance of the smartphone used to order it. This patent has been granted in the US and would presumably be of significant value to a ride sharing company, such as Uber, that is planning to move away from the need for drivers.

Observing Google’s filing strategy for their autonomous vehicle patents appears to show that they are not interested in the Australian market. To date, Google have not filed a single Australian patent application for their autonomous vehicle technology or ride sharing technology in Australia. This contrasts with Google’s filing strategy for other Google developed owned technology, such as improvements to social networking and machine to machine connectivity.

Impact in Australia

So what does all of this mean for the world’s second biggest brand in Australia? The deadline to file many of 195 Google patents in Australia has passed. Given that Google have not filed any Australian patents for their autonomous vehicle technology or ride sharing technology in Australia to date, it would be reasonable to assume that the pending Google applications will also not be filed in Australia. The lack of Australian filings may also have ramifications for other Australian industries, such as agribusiness, where autonomous vehicles could be the way of the future. Google’s strategy means that both Australian and international companies could target and possibly implement Google technology that has not been protected in Australia.

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