Self-Driving to Patentable Subject Matter

Autonomous vehicles and related technologies have been receiving an abundance of exposure in the media lately. The term “autonomous vehicle,” however, means different things to different people. This was recently highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article* , which referenced a survey indicating that the American public lacks familiarity with the concept. Other articles indicate that auto industry leaders may use terms such as “autonomous vehicle”, “self-driving” and “driverless’ as aspirational terms that may be ambiguous. But the overall concept of a driverless or autonomous vehicle isn’t all that novel. American literature is replete with stories of horse-drawn buggies that find their way home when the driver falls asleep. In modern day, combines and other farm equipment operate with little or no real-time input from the driver, relying instead upon GPS and satellite links to traverse a field to cultivate, plant, and harvest crops after being set into motion by the driver. Likewise, mining equipment has been employed to excavate, collect, and transport ore and other composite materials in areas not readily suitable for humans. Each of these is an example of an autonomous vehicle.

As patent attorneys are aware, the patenting process includes describing an inventive concept in a manner that informs skilled practitioners with sufficient detail to enable them to make or use the invention without undue experimentation. This includes requirements that patent claims, i.e., the granted property in the patent, must particularly point out and distinctly claim the subject matter which the applicant regards as their invention. Claim terms are expected to be definite, and are to be either defined in the specification of the patent or known to skilled practitioners.

Engineers and scientists that develop vehicle technology related to autonomous vehicle operation are seeking to substitute a driver’s perceptions with sensing devices and systems, and also seeking to substitute a driver’s inputs to steering wheels and accelerator and brake pedals, with commands to actuators that control a vehicle’s direction of travel, acceleration, and braking. There may be patentable subject matter in all aspects of such development. By way of example, sensing devices and systems that are capable of functioning as substitutes for a driver’s perceptions to perceive the roadway, other vehicles, other objects, and pedestrians that are in proximity to the vehicle may include patentable subject matter. Likewise, devices that perceive and process a driver’s command may include patentable subject matter. Algorithms that process information from the sensing devices and other sources may include patentable subject matter. And, actuators that control some aspect of vehicle operation to achieve the commanded vehicle’s direction of travel, acceleration and/or braking may include patentable subject matter. Each of these technology areas may facilitate some aspect of autonomous operation of a vehicle, but are not autonomous vehicles in and of themselves.

Thus, inventors are encouraged to focus their disclosures in context of the specific problem being solved, such being able to remain in a driving lane while operating on a highway or in an urban setting. Furthermore, inventors should define with specificity any claim terms such as “autonomous vehicle” and “self-driving” so as particularly point out and distinctly claim the scope of their inventive concepts. This can reduce any likelihood of claim rejections during prosecution related to indefiniteness, written description or a best mode. This can also reduce any likelihood of a claim being rendered invalid during a post-grant challenge or litigation. Such terms may be useful in a press release, but should be used with caution in patent claims.

Questions About Patents and Autonomous Vehicles?

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*“What Self-Driving Cars Are All About,” September 28, 2015, Tim Higgins,