Private markets investment into auto and logistics tech is hitting record highs as investors and startup entrepreneurs probe for opportunities in staid, multi-billion-dollar transportation industries. Corporations of all stripes are heavily engaged in their own research here as well, with a range of insurers linked to autonomous vehicle patents and Amazon detailing plans for an airborne warehouse for drone fulfillment.
Using the new CB Insights patent search engine, we dug up a series of recently granted patents in these fields from IBM, Ford, Uber, and Google. We’ll be updating this list with new applications and grants of interest as they are published.
1. Ford: Windscreen display system
A Ford patent application published in March 2017 outlines a system for projecting visual content onto a vehicle’s windscreen. The system described includes a pair of projectors and privacy filters between the projectors and windscreen, enabling driver and passenger to view their own content. The driver, for example, could view navigational data overlaid on the screen, while the passenger could simultaneously be watching a movie.
Beyond automakers and tech companies, media providers and marketers are also eyeing windshield real estate for the opportunities presented by the convergence of AR/MR/VR and autonomous driving technologies.
Amazon’s Prime Air concept triggered an explosion of startup and corporate interest in automated drones capable of fulfilling final-leg deliveries. However, drone designs to date have had limited speed, range, and capacity, especially when compared to the traditional delivery truck. These limitations have driven the exploration of concepts such as Amazon’s aforementioned flying warehouse or Daimler’s mothership vans.
An early February 2017 grant reveals that IBM is also researching ways to improve upon these shortcomings, detailing various methods for drones to conduct in-flight handoffs of packages.
The patent’s description explicitly references last-mile package delivery as a use case: “Embodiments of the present disclosure provide for the delivery of a payload beyond the range or authorized area of operation for a single autonomous drone. Some embodiments of the present disclosure further provide for cooperation between multiple autonomous drones in the delivery of a payload from an originating location, such as a warehouse for example, to a final destination, such as a customer’s home for example.”
As long-range electric vehicles (EVs) slowly become a mainstream reality, automakers and private investors have allocated large amounts of capital into developing EVs as well as the supporting infrastructure they require. A patent granted to Ford in January 2017 addresses the latter need, describing a spring-loaded vehicle charging system that could automatically deploy and fold away into a recessed slot while not in use.
Obviously, this would be a convenient charging system for human drivers. Though not explicitly mentioned in the patent description, such a concept might also be a boon for autonomous electric vehicles, which could automatically dock and recharge at such a station without any need for human intervention.
Other players are also working on solutions that would have similar benefits for self-driving electric cars, such as startup Witricity‘s wireless chargers and Tesla’s slightly disconcerting “snake” charger.
The ride-hailing giant’s self-driving program has made several headlines of late, both positive (with Otto completing its first semi-automated delivery run) and negative (with Uber’s autonomous testing in San Francisco halted by its failure to secure a CA DMV permit).
A patent secured by Uber in late January 2017 outlines the company’s efforts to develop a backend system to route autonomous vehicles (AVs) to customer pick-up requests, optimize the route from pick-up to destination, and transmit this route data to the AV in question.
The system would feature a network of base stations that would transmit data, as well as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) mesh networks that would enhance coverage between AVs and help communicate data to “off-network” vehicles.
The patent also describes how the data generated by the AVs’ sensor payloads (stereo cameras, LiDAR sensors, etc.) would be continuously processed, compared against the backend database, and uploaded to dynamically update stored submaps.
5. Google: Everything autonomous
Goole (Alphabet) was granted a trove of vehicle patents on February 7, 2017, including assisted perception for AVs, predictive vehicle speed control, and even a (fairly pedestrian) autonomous vehicle taillamp.
The volume of these patents comes as no surprise, with the company’s self-driving car project (now formally Waymo) making Google to the most active tech corporate in our study of vehicle tech patent activity.
Looking for more data on patent activity? Log in to CB Insights or sign up for free below.