A patent application filed by Tesla that could mark a fundamental change in the safety of self-driving vehicles was published on August 15.
If eventually approved and defensible, the patent could provide important leverage and licensing potential for Tesla, which despite $21 billion in 2018 revenue, and a current $40 billion market cap, is still losing about $1 billion annually.
If the patent is as fundamental as it appears, it is unlikely that Tesla will be sharing this invention right with others in the electronic and autonomous vehicle (AV) space without appropriate ROI.
The patent is “High-Speed Wiring System Architecture” and it addresses an important aspect of its Full Self-Driving (FSD) suite: redundancy.
“Traditional computer wiring systems often have no redundancy in their communications,” reports Teslarati. “Individual devices are connected to a central point (such as a processor), and each device receives communications separately from that point via some sort of cable. If one of the connections fails, communications to the device fails, and in a self-driving situation, that could mean complete system failure.”
Simply adding more backup cables isn’t really a great solution, either. More connection points mean bigger boards, and bigger boards mean higher manufacturing costs.
This is where Tesla’s new wiring system comes in. The application was published on August 15, 2019 as US Patent Publication No. 2019/0248310.
AV player Waymo represents Google/Alphabet’s consolidated autonomous vehicle division. One of its first acts in 2016 was to file a lawsuit against Uber in federal court, accusing it of patent infringement and trade secret misappropriation, reports Popular Mechanics.
The suit claims that engineer Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,000 technical documents from an internal Google server before resigning from the company to start his own, a self-driving truck company called Otto, in early 2016. Otto was then acquired by Uber a few months later for a reported $680 million.
Contradiction or Strategy?
In 2014, Tesla CEO Elon musk famously announced that the company would share its patents “in the spirit of the open source system” to advance electronic vehicle technology.
“Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters,” Musk wrote in a memo. “That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.
“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”
Well, that was five years ago. It is likely that it is Tesla’s intention to “share” some patents that may help it to establish a standard and profit from others. This is simply good business. We are reminded of IBM’s $34 billion acquisition of open innovation leader Red Hat in 2018 and Microsoft’s $7.5 billion purchase of GitHub, the Git-based code sharing and collaboration service.
At first glance, both deals seem contradictory to the ethos of the two perennial patent ownership leaders. But the Cloud is growing, and perspectives on what should be proprietary is changing. Both companies recognize the need to participate when it makes sense.
As the reliability and licensing potential of many technology patents diminish, what IP-rich companies own and choose to keep proprietary, and when, is evolving, too. This rethinking of the “me-mine-ours” school of patent ownership could actually be a positive sign for patent values in the future, and for innovation.
Some market leaders, including Tesla, are beginning to appreciate the value of a less linear, somewhat more inclusive approach when it comes to using their IP rights. Expect others to follow.
Image source: xautoworld.com; cnbc.com