OEMs and Suppliers are Investing in New or Improved Driver Assist Measures as Industry Journeys to Fully Autonomous Vehicles

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By Joseph Pytel

The fixation on fully autonomous vehicles may lead consumers to believe that efforts to develop new driver assisted technologies or update mature technologies in the interim are diminishing, but that’s hardly the case. As a former auto supplier engineer who recalls the early development days of GM’s OnStar technology, and with a legal intellectual property focus that includes electrical components and computer hardware and software in automotive and mobility, I’ve witnessed the steady progress to autonomy over the past 20-plus years. And while full autonomy may be the goal, I work with companies every day that are investing heavily in partially autonomous product and software developments that will gradually get us there.

All existing, in-development, and planned driver assist technologies are critical in the process to full autonomy. Revisiting the five levels of autonomous driving as outlined by SAE (formerly named the Society of Automotive Engineers), level one of automated driver assistance, such as cruise control, has been around for decades; level three is where a vehicle can operate autonomously but needs a driver to intervene on certain functions; and level 5 is complete autonomy without human assistance – or even a driver – as witnessed with some fully self-driving long-haul trucks currently being tested on public roads.

Between those levels are numerous self-driving technologies that continue to be developed and improved upon as the industry moves toward full integration and acceptance of autonomous vehicle (AV) driving and safety. Part of the focus is for drivers to get comfortable with these technologies along the way while still making the driving experience enjoyable and secure.

Mature advances such as lane assist, park assist, brake assist, and adaptive cruise control, among other features, are all components of — and steppingstones to — a fully self-driving vehicle. However, because these features and others like them can generally be turned off or ignored by the driver, the psychological move to autonomous vehicles can become the greater challenge. Indeed, recent crashes and deaths involving semi-autonomous vehicles– particularly where the driver was in the backseat — continue to create both fear about autonomous safety and reluctance by many to trust even the safest autonomous developments operating in today’s non-autonomous vehicles.

Suppliers are working closely with OEMs, whether the supplier is developing a new product or next iteration of an existing option and aiming to sell it to the OEM, or doing so at the request of the OEM, in order to gain gradual yet faster acceptance of autonomous vehicles. Machine learning, a concept of artificial intelligence that studies computer algorithms and data to automatically improve a process is also playing a role in the transition. For example, machine learning can be used to understand the driver’s driving behaviors, such as braking and acceleration behavior in traffic, on highways, or on surface roads. Various components of the vehicle can then be adjusted to be more responsive, or even to adjust driving routes to save time or to obtain greater fuel efficiency, without seeming intrusive to the driver.

In the meantime, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group that refers to itself as the unified voice of the automotive industry and represents the major automakers, introduced in April 2021, Level 2 driver monitoring principles to clarify that driver assist technologies are not intended to operate independently of a human driver. Specifically, they cite consumer confusion over their role as a driver in a vehicle equipped with automated driving assist features of lane centering and adaptive cruise control where both are engaged. The principles focus on clearly stated promotional consumer information; driver monitoring as a standard feature; driver monitoring warning systems; re-engaging the driver when monitoring systems detect driver response; misuse and abuse of driver monitoring systems; and considerations for camera-based systems.

In 2020, the organization announced a four-year plan and 14 guiding principles to assist policy leaders in ensuring that AV technology and its benefits come to fruition – while also cautioning on current limitations of advanced AV technologies as they relate to full autonomy. The move to safe autonomy requires an immense amount of coordination and leadership from various public and private entities, and it seems that plans put forth by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation and other trusted organizations will help get us there on a smart, shared, and safe path.

From an intellectual property perspective, the rate of patenting these advances or copyrighting the software is fast and furious as the auto industry seeks to accelerate the move to autonomous vehicles – as well as electric vehicles. The level of competition in the industry today, where the software industry is as dominant as ‘hardware,’ has raised the stakes considerably -and that means increased innovation and protection of it.

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Joseph Pytel is an intellectual property attorney and member partner in the Troy office of Dickinson Wright.



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