Computers on wheels: Intellectual property's role in connected and autonomous innovation

Mobility innovations involve complex technology, collaboration, and many, many partnerships. But who is keeping track of what intellectual properties are being used where?

At the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island, we sat down with Pavan Agarwal, IP lawyer and partner at Foley & Lardner, LLP, to learn more about how companies will navigate the murky waters of IP in the age of mobility.

Pavan, you specialize in intellectual property. What does that mean?

If you think about the technology that's developed by workers at a company or by individuals. It's about the protection of the technology that people develop, who's going to own that technology, and figuring out if somebody else is infringing on that technology.

What role does IP play in connected and autonomous vehicle development?

IPs have always played a role in automotive. But the X-factor is the technology side. And there's so much IP in high-tech, anything from the internal control of the car to how cars connect with each other and autonomous driving itself, including artificial intelligence.

They're like computers on wheels. In the past, developing a new platform for a car would take about four or five years. Now, you can literally update the control of the car tomorrow. And it comes with a whole new set of challenges in that sense.

How do you work to advance this particular sector?

It's about trying to ensure that the technology is developed in a safe and useful way. Folks like myself are there to help companies gain the protection for what they develop. And then try to ensure that their market share stays where it should, based on that leadership in their technology. And then try to protect them when other people come and either try to push them out of the market or try to extract a lot of revenue from them.

Just as in many other industries, it's a really fascinating place to be. And you get to work with a tremendous number of very smart people that have a level of creativity that you can never imagine. The things that we do now that we couldn't have thought of 10 years ago are just phenomenal. So, just being a small part of trying to facilitate that is really incredible.

I read some figures that said between 2010 and 2015, 22,000 new inventions were created that are specifically related to autonomous vehicles, and automakers are leading the charge. Is this something that you are seeing?

I think it's a mix. Certainly, under the leadership of automakers there's a tremendous amount of development, but what I would call traditional high-tech companies, large or small, including start-ups, are doing a lot of the development.

What challenges do partnerships and collaborations bring to the work that you do?

The auto industry is just fundamentally changing. It's not the traditional OEM , Tier 1 supplier, Tier 2 supplier model. It's people coming in horizontally, people coming in vertically, companies of all sizes.

And the fact is that the OEM's, as an example, by themselves, develop all this technology, because of the level of specialty and really the speed with which it's being developed. They will partner, with many, many different companies and it becomes a challenge but it's really good to move technology forward. At the end of the day that's what's probably the most important. But, you've got to put into place agreements to figure out who's going to be responsible for what if there's some IP of somebody else for example. Who's going to be responsible for the ultimate development from a timeframe perspective, and contractually. And then, who's going to own all this technology that gets developed?

There's almost an acceptance of understanding that we've all got to work together in this space, otherwise whoever doesn't work together is going to be left-out.

Do you anticipate seeing a rise in disputes with regard to IP?

Yes. And I'd say it's because I've grown up in the handling in the computer and cellphone space and there's also connectivity. Computer connectivity and computing, processing. And so, I think a number of those issues are going to follow into the vehicle space and we're already seeing it.

There are organizations out there that hold patents. What they do is bring patents from different companies together and then they go and say, "Please get a license. If you want to use this technology, we'll give you a one-stop-shop for all this technology. You pay us one fee. Then we'll have all these companies behind us who's IP we're putting in." All of those different models that were used in computers and cellphones are making their way into the auto space.

There is a whole world of IP that's matured in these other spaces. The auto market isn't quite ready for it in that sense. 5G is a very good example. It's the connectivity technology that's probably going to drive the market at the end of the day because the amount of data it's able to handle. But there's so much IP surrounding 5G. So many different companies and individuals hold rights that people say in order to practice 5G you need to get freedom from each and every one of these players. And that's a complexity that's already mature in cellphones and computers, but automakers and the auto industry aren't used to it yet, and especially not who's going to be responsible for it.

There isn't going to be a lot of precedent to call upon when people are disputing.

It's somewhat of a green space because of the application space of automobiles and how do you measure what the value is of IP in automobiles. It's much more mature in computers and cellphones. But, some of the ideas are moving over or are similar to what we're seeing. It's good that there are some best practices. There are some, you know, approaches that people and companies will take. But, it increases the level of complexity. OEM's can't just turn to a Tier 1 supplier as easily as they could in traditional model.

I bet that makes a lot of people nervous.

Yeah, there are a number of companies that we work with that want to know what all this stuff is that's happening. We have these things called Standard Essential Patents because companies come together to determined how, you know, everybody has to talk the same way. Sort of like, when you make a phone call, or you use the WiFi. Doesn't matter what phone you have or who made the internal components. Everybody knows this is the way we're going to communicate. But then, that's IP.

What will you talk about in your session here at the Mackinac Policy Conference?

I plan to talk about some of the pillar issues from regulatory to the business collaborations to the technology protection. I'll talk a little bit about, if I get a chance, about the fact that Michigan remains at the forefront of the auto industry.

I'm starting to think about the concept of whether Michigan, instead of providing the entire team, is now more the quarterback, and they're looking out into other geographic regions, and pulling them in because it's a realization that there's a lot of development that we just can't have all of it here. And there are market leaders in Silicon Valley and Boston and elsewhere. And we all need to collaborate to move the industry forward.

But I think a conference like this is really critical to continue to ensure that everybody understands that Michigan's leading the forefront. Whether it's, you know, the Smart Corridor that's being developed at Mcity at the University of Michigan. You know, there really is a tremendous amount of R&D. Automotive R&D at its heart is still in this state, you know. And I think the key is insuring that the U.S. and then the rest of the world continues to see it that way.

That's why having someone like Governor Snyder give a keynote speaking address is so important, and that he has somebody from Ford speaking is pretty phenomenal. And we'll have Senator Gary Peters on our panel, which I have to say is pretty darn cool. He has really been a large voice in terms of legislation and putting through policy to advance the testing of autonomous vehicles on our roadways here.
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