21 October 2019
In the race to open the market for connected and autonomous vehicles, Mathys & Squire managing associate and patent attorney Andrew White looks at the competing technologies in this article for Vehicle Electronics Magazine.
In August this year, Continental, Europe’s largest auto technology supplier, announced it would stop investing in parts for petrol and diesel engines as it positions itself for rapid growth in cleaner transportation amid declining global production of cars and lorries.
In July, Ford and Volkswagen (VW) announced a significant expansion of their global collaboration on electric vehicles and self-driving technology, as they look to manage the storms battering the global auto industry.
VW will invest $2.6bn in Argo AI, the Ford-backed driverless technology start-up, and will begin testing self-driving cars in Europe, while Ford will build a mass-produced electric vehicle in Europe using VW’s in-house development and manufacturing system for battery cars, promising savings for both companies in duplicated investment costs.
Further, Toyota and Suzuki announced in August that they would deepen their existing alliance and take stakes in each other’s businesses to bear the costs of developing autonomous vehicle technology.
It is no surprise that as vehicles use smarter technology, they need to adopt industry-accepted communication protocols to ensure interoperability, to communicate with one another and their external environment.
One of the most widely adopted protocols is the Can, which is now the ISO 11898-2 standard. It dates back to 1986 and can attain 1Mbit/s but, using the latest specification ISO-11898-2 2915, which uses flexible data rate operation (Can-FD), it can reach 12Mbit/s.
However, with the increased prevalence of on-vehicle safety systems such as adas providing functions including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning systems, radar and lidar sensors, and so on, such speeds are woefully inadequate. Furthermore, Can is limited to a wired system.
With more advanced safety systems, and with autonomous vehicles on the horizon, there is a need for vehicles to communicate wirelessly not only with each other, but also with their wider environment. These communication systems are generally labelled as vehicle to vehicle (V2V) or vehicle to anything (V2X), with the ‘anything’ including the wider environment such as infrastructure and pedestrians.
Of course, these systems have major implications for public safety and are governed by tight regulatory and network constraints. Furthermore, for those businesses that are quick to protect core IP in this area, this may represent a real opportunity to disrupt the entire automotive industry.
Over the years, two competing communication protocols have been developed. The first is Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC). This is an amendment to the IEEE 802.11 standard.
In short it is wifi for cars, but it has been adapted to be specifically suited to the automotive environment so has to have very low latency and be able to cope with extremely short windows in which it can exchange and transmit data.
The US Department of Transportation has been a big supporter of this system, having invested over $700m in its development, and a section of spectrum in the 5.9GHz band was allocated back in 1999. NXP has been actively pursuing DSRC technology, as have VW and Toyota having both trialled the technology.
Toyota announced in April 2018 that it would begin installation of DSRC technology in 2021, and General Motors began installing the technology in a small number of vehicles.
DSRC does, however, have shortcomings; its short range of 150 to 300m may not be large enough for safety-critical applications when considering vehicles travelling at speed. Collisions between messages from two devices may also occur when they are transmitted at the same time.
This coupled with a lack of sufficient coverage may have an impact on vehicle safety, despite the technology having been demonstrated to be highly effective.
Furthermore, a lack of commitment from the automotive industry, plus Donald Trump’s administration failing to push ahead with a mandate for the technology to be installed in all new vehicles, means DSRC hasn’t yet experienced a wide uptake and is perhaps falling out of favour with the industry, with Toyota announcing in April 2019 that it was going to abandon its plans to use DSRC.
As an alternative to DSRC, many car makers are looking to 5G cellular, known as LTE-V2X, which is included in the latest 5G specification. In short, it makes use of the existing planned 5G infrastructure to enable high speed interactions at greater ranges than DSRC.
Qualcomm is very active in this area, with a V2X product based around its 9150 chipset developed in 2017. Working with the Chinese National Development & Reform Commission to achieve a target V2X network coverage rate of 90% in 2020, Qualcomm is also working with mobile network operators such as China Mobile.
One of the benefits of LTE-V2X is that it allows direct communication between enabled devices, meaning a signal doesn’t get held up travelling through the network. Ultimately, it may allow vehicles to see around corners.
LTE-V2X seems to be experiencing a warmer reception in the industry. Ford announced in January 2019 that it was going to deploy cellular V2X technology in all new US vehicles sold from 2022. Audi, BMW, Ford and Daimler, along with Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia, have also all been trialling the technology.
As well as not requiring such extensive and expensive infrastructure upgrades, another selling point for LTE-V2X is that many car makers would likely want to add in some cellular network capacity in their vehicles anyway, and using LTE-V2X may allow both to be done with only one chipset.
The fact that there are two main competing protocols has led many in the industry to adopt a wait-and-see approach. However, with the ongoing rollout of 5G infrastructure, and the commitments made by car makers to use LTE-V2X technology, there is a chance the winner will soon emerge from this battle over connected vehicles and perhaps these vehicles will be travelling on roads in the very near future.
Many businesses will have invested heavily in research and development (R&D) and protecting their IP. For example, through patents, which is a way of helping preserve their R&D investment and achieve their long-term strategic goals.
The protection of core strategic IP relating to communications protocols is nothing new – indeed it has been around for decades, and covers everything from GSM to 5G.
When it comes to telecommunications protocols, collaboration and interoperability are extremely important – a Nokia handset must communicate with Ericsson equipment, for example. This generally results in competing businesses signing up to standards setting organisations (SSOs), such as the Etsi or the 3GPP.
Once businesses are signed up to these SSOs, they must set particular agreed technical standards to ensure interoperability. If a business has patents that cover the technology in a standard – what is known in the field as a standards essential patent – then the business, as a condition of its membership of the SSO, agrees to license the technology covered by that patent on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms.
The consequences of businesses not protecting IP may be severe. In the telecoms field, many non-practising entities or trolls have acquired large patent portfolios they are aggressively asserting. Many cars already encompass telecommunication technology – such as involving wifi, 3G or 4G technology – that is the subject of various different patents.
The trolls are very experienced and may exploit inexperienced automotive suppliers and OEMs, often pressuring them to accept the terms of an unfair licence agreement rather than face litigation. These licence agreements may fall foul of the FRAND terms that those businesses are required to meet, or may not even cover what is being asserted.
While automotive companies have not typically been targeted by troll patent holders to date, things seem likely to change. A report by Managing IP in 2018 indicated that 95% of respondents considered that IP would play an important role in the development of the automotive sector over the next five years, with 86% indicating that they expect to see more litigation over IP rights.
In times of disruption such as these, there may be fantastic opportunities for businesses that are quick to protect key strategic IP to obtain a controlling position in the market. Whether this comes from a forward-looking automotive company protecting important strategic IP relating to LTE-V2X, or from a well-established telecoms company, only time will tell.
One thing is certain – patenting activity in this area is on the up and is likely to affect everyone in the automotive industry in the race to get connected and autonomous vehicles on the streets.
This article was originally published in the October 2019 edition of Vehicle Electronics Magazine (pp. 36-38).
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