Google’s Driverless Car Patents Are Bad News

TO GO WITH AFP STORY ‘Technology-HongKong-research-computer’ BY STEPHEN COATES The robot car of the ‘Cooky’ exhibition is seen at the SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 Exhibition in Hong Kong on December 13, 2011. ‘Cooky’ is designed to help the user cook various customized recipes. AFP PHOTO / Aaron Tam (Photo credit should read aaron tam/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo by aaron tam/AFP/Getty Images

Google’s work on developing autonomously piloted robot cars has paid off in thousands of miles of road testing and now an exciting patent monopoly over “technology” to transition a car into and out of self-driving mode. In the long run, the goal of driverless car technology is probably to have whole cities replace their existing fleets of private vehicles with what amount to extremely cheap taxis. That would allow us to get by with drastically less parking, and manager much higher densities with less congestion. But as a transitional business concept, a car that can switch into and out of driverless mode has a lot of obvious value including the fact that presumably the regulatory issues around self-piloting cars will vary from place to place. 

And good for Google in leading the way in this space. But does it really serve the public interest to hand out monopolies to cover “various methods and devices for switching a mixed-mode vehicle from being driven by a human into autonomous mode” including “the use of a predefined landing strip” or “programming a predefined route into a vehicle, or having a computer control an autonomous vehicle that follows a route based on information stored in the computer”?

I have a very hard time seeing it. If you look at the cars we have, they’re all of course different but they have a lot of really profound similarities. You almost always turn a key in the ignition. You have your gas pedal and your break, and you push them both with your right foot. You steer them with a wheel. There’s a spedometer and a fuel indicator in more-or-less the same place. They use mirrors so you can see where you’re going without constantly turning your head. Would it be a better world if for twenty years someone had held a patent on a Using Mirrors To Allow Drivers To See Behind Them Without Turning Their Head? I say, no. Absent the inability of new entrants into the automobile market to copy some of the basic concepts of what a usable car looks like, we would have had much less competition and much less innovation around the real cutting edge of the automobile industry.