Germany’s automotive giants top the charts for autonomous-driving patents

Patently busy.
Patently busy.
Image: EPA/Christian Bruna
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German biggest carmakers have sometimes been accused of being asleep at the wheel when it comes to gearing up for the electric-vehicle age. However, they don’t seem to be short of ideas when it comes to autonomous-driving technology.

According to a survey from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (link in German), as of August, German car manufacturers and supplier firms had filed way more patents for self-driving cars than most other global automotive companies.

The institute analyzed filings from 2010 to 2017 and identified those that had to do with autonomous driving from the PATENTSCOPE data bank of the World Intellectual Property Organization. In total, they found 5,839 autonomous-driving patents were filed over seven years, more than half of those by traditional carmakers, and nearly one third by established auto-supplier companies.

Germans appear particularly busy: 52% of globally registered patents for autonomous driving came from German companies. And six out of the top 10 companies filing such patents were German if you include both carmakers and suppliers, with Ford, GM, Toyota, and Google making up the rest.

Tech supplier Bosch topped the chart, filing a whopping 958 patents, with Audi and Continental taking second and third place respectively.

“I think the chances for German manufacturers to be successful with these technologies are pretty good,” Dr. Hubertus Bardt, head of research at Cologne Institute for Economic Research, told Quartz. “I am optimistic that the [German] companies can develop autonomous driving technology as an advantage in international competition.”

The survey notes that German auto manufacturers are in a prime position when it comes to getting a competitive edge in self-driving vehicles, thanks to the strength of the country’s premium-auto segment. Premium-car customers are able to pay more for assistant systems, and eventually for completely autonomous cars, which can later be sold more cheaply in the mass market—and Germany has a strong base of both kinds of buyer. Germany also is the first country to lay down rules of the road for driverless cars.

One important thing, however, was that the researchers were not able to ascertain how close some of these patents were to concrete application, nor their overall quality.

If companies like Bosch lead the way in self-driving, more than just Germany’s auto industry stands to benefit. Partnerships between carmakers, ride-hailing firms, and tech companies are forming every day—and they’re a tangled web. So tangled that Quartz mapped some of the main alliances in one handy graphic.