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Google's Waymo unseats Toyota as automated-driving patent king

US company rides AI to cutting edge as data becomes center of auto competition

Waymo, once Google's development arm for self-driving cars, has had its patents widely recognized by reviewers.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Google's automated-driving cousin has replaced Toyota Motor as the field's leader in competitive power from patents, Nikkei has found, asserting its place on the cutting edge with artificial intelligence technology as data grows as an auto-sector battleground.

Waymo, the U.S.-based unit of Google parent Alphabet, surged to first place in Nikkei's ranking of patent-based competitiveness in the sector as of July's end, nearly tripling its score to 2,815 points from comparable results two years earlier and rising from fifth place. Toyota fell to second with 2,243, followed by General Motors, Ford Motor and Nissan Motor. German components maker Robert Bosch was pushed out of the top five. Nikkei was assisted in the survey by Tokyo-based research firm Patent Result.

As cars transform ever more into rolling information processors, the center of competition is shifting away from fuel economy and production efficiency toward data-handling technology. The rise of the data economy has begun to catch up in particular with Japanese automakers that have long focused on hardware. All four of the Japanese companies in the top 10 -- Toyota, Nissan, Honda Motor and parts maker Denso -- came in lower than in 2016.

Companies were scored on three factors related to their U.S. patents: the degree to which they pursued patent rights, the level of notice competitors paid them, and how widely known their patents were to examiners. Those that applied for international patents scored highly in the first category, for instance, and facing many petitions from rivals for invalidation trials earned points for the second. In the third, a major factor was how frequently companies' patents were cited in international search reports -- reports on advanced patents by international bodies.

Waymo patents were cited 769 times in total, about 1.6 times Toyota's count and 2.3 times GM's. Citations by international examiners serve as a benchmark for approvals: the more a company is cited, the harder it is for competitors to win similar patents. Waymo has just 318 patents in force, less than half Toyota's count, but its patents are widely known to examiners and are recognized as the cutting edge.

The American company's strength in AI powered its rise in the survey ranks. Applications of that technology include using mapping and positioning information to discern and make judgments about traffic conditions and the movements of other cars and people, as well as automatically adjust steering and brakes. Waymo earned 1,385 points -- nearly half its total score -- on patents related to the all-important tech, while Toyota earned just 204 in that category.

Google's autonomous driving development segment was spun off as Waymo in 2016.

Waymo holds an overwhelming lead in collecting data with which to hone AI's precision. The company logged 560,000 km last year -- about 14 times Earth's circumference -- worth of driving on public roads in the U.S. state of California. Nissan, by comparison, logged about 8,000 km.

Chinese companies did not rank in the top 50, despite their efforts to develop self-driving technology. Chinese companies started applying for patents only recently, so they lag behind their Western rivals in the number of invalidation trials and citations in advanced technology reports, which affect overall scores.

Chinese ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing came in 90th, while Baidu, China’s largest internet search company, ranked 114th. In July, Baidu disclosed a patent in Japan for technology that uses AI to detect cars rapidly approaching from behind and notifies the driver. Companies are also joining hands with the government to gather driving data in China. Chinese companies apply for more patents than their Japanese rivals in the U.S., and they are expected to top the ranking in the future.

By country, the U.S. topped the ranking with 8,125 points, surpassing Japan’s 6,471 points. The U.S. had 1,529 valid patents, falling below Japan’s 1,800. That results from the U.S. policy of increasing patent-based competitiveness focusing on more sophisticated technology.

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