Self-driving trucks have threatened to upend the freight industry for years, but a new report on the pace of patents within the tech industry focused on autonomous driving reveals how close the world is to this revolutionary event, and who the winners and losers might be.
"Patent activity in autonomous vehicles is insanely hot right now and has been over the past three years," read a report from Patent Forecast, a firm that tracks intellectual property developments within industries.
According to the report, issued patents and published applications have exploded in the last four years as the race to true self driving heats up, but the frontrunners in the pack have already begun to consolidate and widen their lead via partnerships.
"Partnerships are becoming a vital part of the industry. Whether it be between OEMs and autonomous driving platforms, companies are beginning to realize that an autonomous vehicle is too large for any one company to tackle alone. Instead, more companies have created strategic portfolios to complement their niche," the report read.
But, while partnerships facilitate the fusion of tech and hardware, as well as theory and practice, the real winners of the self-driving truck race will be patent owners, according to JiNan Glasgow George, the CEO of Patent Forecast.
"If I give any theme for this report, it's partnerships," she said. "The biggest, most immediate need in self-driving vehicles is long haul trucking. We've already seen some successful applications, and it's still early."
Patent Forecast's report looked at both the pace and scope of patents in the space as well as the broader market performance of each of the leading companies in self driving trucks to attempt to predict which company would win out in the end. Here's a look at some of the biggest players in the industry and where they stand.
Waymo, owned by Google parent company Alphabet, took an early lead in filing for patents back in 2013 and has stayed more or less on top since then.
According to Glasgow George, Waymo now sits comfortably ahead of the pack and has a decent shot at completely dominating the market, just as Google Search and Google Maps dominate their respective sectors.
"If you look at the company beyond trucking, they are about the data," she said. "My opinion is that Alphabet always goes for trying to monetize data. Usually Google companies don't have a long term patent need, they tend to buy companies. Waymo's portfolio doesn't cover enough to go into the vehicle applications, so they're going to have to make their technology vehicle agnostic."
On that score, Waymo has partnered with Daimler Trucks, but basically, Waymo hasn't prioritized partnerships with OEMs just yet because it may not need to. Waymo, according to Glasgow George, will hope to invent a platform that works with all vehicles equally and then try to shut other competitors out of the space.
Currently, Waymo is engaged in a massive amount of small scale passenger car testing and simulations to ensure their vehicles can operate safely in a long-haul environment.
"In total, the Waymo Driver has driven across 10 states in the U.S. and accumulated over 20 million miles of autonomous driving experience on public roads, with an additional 20 billion miles in simulation," a Waymo representative told CCJ.
Additionally, Waymo hopes to entirely side step the issue of road markings and sensors built into infrastructure by building a platform that works entirely with onboard and networked tech and sensors.
"We aren’t asking cities or states to build out any special infrastructure for our autonomously driven trucks. Rather, our technology is designed to navigate the roads of today and will adapt to the roads of tomorrow," the Waymo representative said.
Overall, Glasgow George gave Waymo the top spot as the most likely company to bring self-driving trucks to the market, and the representative said the company was now focused on dealing with long tail risks like weather events and accidents on the highway by testing out their trucks in the relatively calm and temperate southeast.
TuSimple has a partnership with Navistar to offer self-driving trucks equipped with its autonomous driving system beginning in 2024, but in 2021 it looks a few steps behind Waymo, though it's taken a decidedly different approach.
"TuSimple has shown a lot of good activity, but it started later than Waymo, so there's a disadvantage," said Glasgow George.
TuSimple "has been able to build a fairly solid portfolio surrounding its core technologies which are its proprietary HD cameras that allow its trucks to operate day and night and AI truck control software," the report read. "For remaining LIDAR and radar technologies, the company has partnered with Aeva Inc and Sony to provide sensor technologies, which strategically fills holes in its patent portfolio and helps it catch up to a similar size as Waymo."
Also, TuSimple has actually put the rubber to the road with a shipment of watermelons from Arizona to Oklahoma City that cut ten hours off a trip that typically averages 24 hours.
TuSimple didn't respond to CCJ's requests for comments before the time of this article's publication. CCJ will update this article with any new information from TuSimple.
Aurora got a late start with trucking patents but has no shortage of tech genius behind the wheel as its founders hail from Google, Tesla, and Uber. The company has partnered with Volvo to retrofit some older trucks with self-driving technology, but most notably acquired Uber's Advanced Technologies Group, which worked on self-driving trucks.
More recently, Aurora made headlines with talk of going public via an SPAC. Currently, the company is valued at more than $10 billion.
While other companies have sought to partner with other firms to cover gaps, Aurora has taken on mostly a "buy" strategy of acquiring partners or competitors, said Glasgow George. Overall, Glasgow George doesn't expect Aurora to beat Waymo or TuSimple to market, but won't count the firm out just yet.
Aurora declined to comment on its patent strategy in a move that may confirm how fiercely companies in this space protect their intellectual property.
How close are we to self driving trucks?These days, most big self-driving truck companies could put a truck on a highway on a clear, sunny day and not run into too many problems. But, as any trucker knows, weather, traffic, and accidents on the road can spoil plans in a moment's notice. That's where self-driving trucks need to catch up.
Onboard technology to facilitate self-driving trucks has advanced about as far as it can without smart infrastructure that talks to the onboard tech. According to Glasgow George, because trucking and the infrastructure that supports it, spans the country, federal agencies need to coordinate and decide on a unified approach to smart infrastructure.
"The issues are the coordination across federal and state governments and the DOT," she said. "There are a lot of agreements that have to come together to make that work."
Additionally, unlike tech applications in a fixed location, self-driving trucks can't rely on connectivity and cloud computing, according to Glasgow George. Instead, they'll need onboard processors to get realtime information from smart infrastructure that will help them adapt to weather or traffic conditions.
"On the highways, trucks can’t be worried about connectivity to the cloud. Vehicles themselves need to communicate with distributed infrastructure. They're solving that with edge computing," she said. "You can’t solve it with cloud or micro cloud computing you have to have true edge, near where you need the analytics. Every intersection is going to need some sort of infrastructure to manage the vehicle data. Sensors that relate to weather and lights and traffic."
In that way, self-driving trucks are simultaneously right around the corner and a world away. Most industry experts agree the shift to unmanned vehicles will eventually happen, but even the best-funded tech firm can't get make federal, state, and local governments agree on infrastructure overnight.
But big tech's race for patents in the self-driving space proves that the country's sharpest minds in tech and infrastructure realize the money to be made in autonomous trucking will be in owning intellectual property or becoming a platform for a wide range of users.
As for fleets looking to keep their heads above a rising tide when the autonomous driving revolution finally does come around, look out. Bigger, more invested fleets are sure to have the first-mover advantage.