Self-driving vehicles are no longer a future-forward concept. The United States, the leading market for autonomous vehicles, has shown significant progress with the likes of pilot programs for driverless delivery and taxi services in 25 cities with driving distances up to 50 miles in some areas. General trust in the idea of self-driving vehicles has also increased, especially in the face of COVID-19– many driverless car companies took their products to the streets to assist with the delivery of emergency supplies, enabling further data on their performance to be collected.
The automobile today serves as a high-tech platform that links automotive manufacturers and suppliers with emerging technology providers. Hastened by the desire for contactless services brought on by the pandemic, competition in this space continues to intensify and become globalized. Top manufacturers include Tesla, Waymo, and GM’s Cruise in the US and startups like Zoox, Mobileye, and Baidu’s Apollo Go in Australia, Israel, and China, respectively. Additionally, an extensive field of innovators has emerged worldwide for components and other linked technologies, ranging from sensing tools and systems to WiFi, to cellular, OTS hardware, and specialized processors.
Growing trust, fierce competition, a crowded field, and uncharted innovation create opportunities for litigation.
The frontrunners for self-driving technology continuously fluctuate, with new entrants challenging existing players for control. Tesla is pushing to release their autonomous Robotaxis, creating direct competition with Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motor’s Cruise. Pony.ai also just became the first autonomous car company with a taxi license in China and is working to establish a US presence after being set back by self-driving vehicle crashes in California.
When it comes to this technology and the software that drives it, the differing strategies between players will surely prompt disputes in the space. Automotive expert and WIT Advisory Panel member Larry Achram made it clear that traditional manufacturers have implemented a bottom-up strategy while newer firms like Tesla would prefer to work from the top-down, accepting greater risk with the comfort that the software can be frequently updated. Additionally, he explained that “There is a split between the tech firms working on full robot control, debating the number of sensors necessary to make the best decisions in practice. Tesla is in the camp that believes it can achieve this control with the fewest number of sensors, avoiding the use of the incredibly expensive and scarce LIDAR sensors. Others do not. Who is more correct?”
As the field tightens, consolidations and partnerships are bound to emerge between manufacturers and suppliers. Aurora, a self-driving vehicle startup founded by former Tesla and Google employees, has built software for Hyundai, Fiat, and Volkswagen. Amazon and Zoox, another autonomous vehicle startup, partnered to expand their operations and tech. And in a race for patent dominance, scrutiny over the patent pools associated with these expanding innovations and collaborations will likely ignite questions over ownership.
We expect litigation involving self-driving vehicles to burgeon quickly.
When litigation ensues, attorneys will need experts from a wide range of areas related to self-driving vehicles. Ideally, attorneys should leverage experts who can address various specialties, whether it be to understand specific advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), explain industry practices and policies, or present matters that involve high-level FRAND and damages analyses. Identifying the hot spots in the battery and electric vehicles markets—who owns what and where we expect litigation to arise—will be core to recognizing the opportunities for legal disputes as well. Additionally, the right expert can provide insight into how auto patent policies have impacted trade secrets litigation.
The global autonomous vehicles market is expected to grow to $325.9 billion by 2030 (a CAGR of 41.57% from 2021 to 2030)*. There is little doubt that self-driving technology is driving investment opportunities. The questions are which companies will be the market leaders, and how will they develop litigation strategies to stay at the forefront.