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Japanese Automotive Companies being overtaken in the race for self-driving cars

27th Sep 2018

According to a report published by the Nikkei Shimbun on 13 September 2018, Google (Waymo) has beaten Toyota to first position in a ranking of patent portfolios relating to self-driving cars. In the same survey two years ago, Toyota was in the top spot and Google was ranked only fifth. An English version of the article is available here.


The ranking was prepared by the Nikkei Shimbun in conjunction with the Tokyo based firm ‘Patent Result’ and scored companies according to different criteria, including: 1) a desire to lead – an attribute measured by the number of patent applications filed overseas; 2) the perceived importance of a company’s patents to the market place measured by validity attacks on those patents from third parties; and 3) the relevance of the company’s patents to technological advances in the sector. This last indicator was calculated based on the number of times a patent is cited in the International Search Report (ISR) of other patent applications. It is assumed that a frequently cited patent is more important than one that is cited less frequently.

As a result of the methodology, Waymo, despite having fewer than half of the number of Toyota’s patents in the survey, received a significantly higher score: a score of 2815 (based on 318 applications) compared to Toyota’s score of 2243 (based on 682 applications).


The loss of position has unsettled Japanese companies, who were urged in 2017 by Prime Minister Abe to put digital technologies like (Internet of Things) IoT, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data at the top of the nation’s list of priorities. It has been noted that Japan does not yet have its own Google, Apple or Amazon, and the government – METI (the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry) – is keen to rectify this.

Traditionally, however, Japan has been seen as strong in manufacturing and hardware, and slower in adopting disruptive digital technologies. In the area of self-driving cars, for example, Japanese automotive companies still appear to be playing to their traditional strengths, and while developing digitally assisted driving solutions, have for the most part focussed on driver-assistance level applications, rather than fully autonomous driving solutions.

In support of this, the Nikkei Shimbun refers to a recent publication by the JPO presenting an analysis of self-driving car patent filing statistics in Japan. The publication identifies that the majority of patent applications relating to self-driving cars filed by Japanese applicants relate to technologies at the lower end of the scale developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE): predominantly levels 1 and 2 which relate to driver-assistance level innovations, such as lane keeping assist systems, advanced emergency braking systems, and adaptive cruise control systems for example.

US based companies, like Waymo, on the other hand, are reported as focussing on higher level technology falling in levels 3 to 5 of the SAE scale. Such technology relates to conditional or fully automated intelligent driving systems, capable of driving the car based on analysis of map-based and position based information, and traffic and pedestrian movements. By securing patents in this area, Waymo has been able to outperform Toyota in the Nikkei Shimbun survey.


It is likely that in future, self-driving cars will to become a commoditised, interchangeable product, and individual car ownership will continue to fall. In such circumstances, the automotive companies that dominate the market will be those with best combination of hardware and software. Japanese companies who already excel in hardware and in protecting their IP need only to take a small step in further developing the digital side of their offering to be a truly formidable force. Despite the results of the current survey, Japanese companies will therefore likely find themselves favourably positioned in future.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

Nick Reeve
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Would you like to know more? You can talk to Nick Reeve who will be able to help. Call +44 (0)20 7242 0901


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