Large companies around the world continue to file patents for autonomous vehicles (AVs). AVs can improve road safety while lowering the environmental footprint of vehicles. Among those recently issued, some interesting ones are Apple’s Project Titan and Volvo’s steering wheel system. In Asia, Toyota also has a pending patent for its cross-docking system.
Apple Inc. has been steadily obtaining patents for its long-range Project Titan that seeks to create the core technologies needed for possible future semi-autonomous, fully autonomous, and electric vehicle systems. The company is working on underlying software technologies that make it possible for vehicles to navigate autonomously.
One of Apple’s recently issued patent relates to a system that can guide a driver on how and when to change lanes safely. To be able to change lanes, AVs require a system that can make a decision based on behavioral patterns and motion planning. The module integrates predetermined constraints and goals so that a successful lane change is possible. A successful shift from one lane to another avoids collisions while maintaining passenger comfort.
This interest in car manufacturing for Apple dates back to the creation of the original iPhone. Steve Jobs apparently contemplated going into car building and even went as far as meeting with a manufacturer of lightweight car bodies. Apple shelved the idea at the time, thinking it was premature. The company instead focused on the iPhone.
Project Titan and Apple’s interest in AVs only resurfaced in 2014. It is not clear at present whether Apple intends to create its own AV as they originally planned. The company at the moment is intent on sensors and software for AVs regardless of who makes them.
Project Titan already has over 75 patents covering various facets of future vehicles. The company envisions vehicles that can communicate with next-generation roads. It also covers patents for radar projectors used for automatic steering, as well as sophisticated camera systems for in-vehicle use. Additionally, these patents include the use of machine learning to direct a vehicle to a smart windows system that can shade windows directly under the sun to protect the driver and passengers.
As the car industry is evolving where computers assume more control of a vehicle's functions, the steering wheel's design and function are also changing. Some manufacturers have created retractable steering wheels when vehicles are in autonomous mode. Others, like Volvo, have fashioned their steering wheel systems to allow for mobility.
The movement is possible through the use of a drive-by-wire-based system positioned on a rail, allowing it to move along the vehicle’s width. Due to this drive-by-wire, the whole steering system essentially turns into a single electronic unit. This permits the steering wheel to continue working no matter its location in the vehicle.
Volvo's idea can potentially resolve the problem that current car manufacturers face when it comes to steering wheel placement inside the car. At present, carmakers have to re-engineer vehicles that run in the UK, Australia, or Japan.
With this recent invention, carmakers can manufacture anywhere in the world without making separate wheel designs for certain countries. The steering wheel can be adjusted when shipped and sold to countries where driving is on the other side. For autonomous vehicles, the driver can choose to move the steering wheel to the other side when switching to a self-driving mode.
Volvo's progress in the AV industry is not limited to core technologies. Earlier this year, the European carmaker partnered with Waymo to power Volvo's fleet of electric robotaxis. Waymo is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google. The robotaxis can operate without human drivers under specific conditions and only with a specific location using Waymo's AV technology.
Asian carmakers are also making the transition into manufacturing electric and autonomous vehicles.
In the case of Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, its exploration of autonomous technologies isn’t limited to passenger vehicles. It’s also laying the groundwork for automation in the supply chain, particularly in logistics.
Toyota has a pending patent application for autonomous cross docking. Cross docking is a logistical procedure where a manufacturer’s products move from their warehouses directly to customers or retail chains with no storage time. This leads to greater efficiency and allows for companies to stay lean.
Toyota’s patent application for a cross-docking system uses operations management that controls and directs the flow of freight on autonomous trucks. The system would determine the number of trucks required for specific freight loads and generate departure times for the trucks. Freight size and weight determine the number of trucks needed with the information provided through bar codes.
The system also has a vehicle guide on an autonomous platoon. Buses that transport workers from one place to another will serve as a guide for one of the transport vehicles.
The Japanese carmaker’s patent application envisions a system where a reduction in the number of drivers is possible, further lowering operational costs.
Toyota is currently engaged in the development of “guardian” and “chauffeur” modes for autonomous and semi-autonomous passenger vehicles. The guardian mode provides a safety protocol that prevents bad decisions in driving. For instance, when the system detects a fast car in the other lane, it would override a change lane command. The chauffeur mode is designed for older drivers, which is important in Japan’s aging population.