June 17, 2014 2:39 am JST

Japan big in patents for automated driving, robotics

Nissan unveiled a prototype last fall of a car that can drive itself.

TOKYO -- Toyota led the world in patent applications for technology used in self-driving cars, according to the Japan Patent Office, which found Japanese companies spearheading innovation in other high-tech fields as well.

     The study combed through patent applications filed mostly in Japan, the U.S., Europe, China and South Korea over the five to 10 years through 2011. The Japan Patent Office conducts similar studies every year. But the latest one provides the first look into some of the tech world's most talked-about sectors, such as cars that drive themselves.

     Among Toyota's many patent applications in this field are sensors designed to maintain a proper distance from other cars on the road. Japanese autoparts maker Denso ranked second, followed by Nissan in fourth place and Honda in fifth. Japanese companies had filed 2,800 patent applications for drive-control technology that reacts to traffic signals and other input -- far more than their foreign rivals.

     In big-data analysis, another field making its first appearance in the study, IBM and Hitachi stood out as the two leading innovators. Second-ranked Hitachi's strength lies in distributing data processing among multiple computers. Fujitsu came in fourth place, followed by Nippon Telegraph & Telephone.

     In robotics, Yaskawa Electric ranked first, followed by Honda in second and Seiko Epson in fourth. Japanese companies have long been synonymous with industrial robots. But a notable number of their more recent patent applications are for service robots, such as mechanical suits that help patients undergoing physical therapy.

     Japan's Kyoto University ranked second in patent applications for stem cell technology, following U.S. consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson.

     One field where the Japanese lagged was 3-D printing technology. In fourth place, Panasonic was the sole Japanese player even close to the front of the pack.

     Corporate Japan has a reputation not only for producing prolific numbers of patent applications but also for struggling to translate them into market share gains. In particular, Japanese companies come up short in patents for technology that rivals would have to use.

     Japanese companies need "to make selective use of patented technology and technology kept as trade secrets," says Katsuya Tamai, a University of Tokyo professor versed in intellectual property law. The former can become the industry standard, while the latter can serve as a moneymaker.

(Nikkei)

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