Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Intellectual property: the story that never ends

More on intellectual property rights from Matt Yglesias, who is worried about Google patenting basic features of driverless cars:
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.

This was not the most interesting thing that was on Moneybox today, but it fit really well into an an evolving theme that we have been seeing recently about how the patent industry is formalizing rent-seeking.  This cannot be good in the long run.

Now, it is true that I think that the driverless car is an over-rated concept.  Like the jetpack, it is a neat idea that has a lot of very difficult implementation issues.  In the case of the driverless car, the main issues, in my opinion, are rethinking the complex web of liability we have constructed around vehicles and smoothly integrating them into mixed use roadways.

The risk of bicycle commuting has been an extremely favorable development, despite the occasional tension between cars and bikers.  But I wonder if driverless cars will be able to handle treating cyclists as other vehicles or might the smaller profile of the bike make it harder for the car to account for them?  The same concerns come up with pedestrians, especially in large cities.


  1. I don't think the jet pack analogy is particularly strong. The appeal of jet packs seems to me to have been based around a sort of technological fetish (people can fly! by themselves!) rather than any real functional needs.

    Driverless cars, on the other hand, represent probably the most plausible solution to the still enormous problem of traffic deaths. Given the huge, albeit slowly falling, number of people who die on US roads every year, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of these deaths are due in some measure to human error, automation provides an opportunity to dramatically reduce the amount of carnage we accept as the cost of transport. Looking beyond safety features, automation also offers potentially large gains in travel efficiency (e.g. car spacing is no longer limited by human reaction times), car sharing flexibility (you would be able to hail a shared car, which would be able to respond to you and other travelers in an optimized way), a significant increase in productive/recreational hours for long-distance car commuters, etc.

    Finally, with respect to the small profile of bicyclists and pedestrians, I think this is actually an argument for the benefits of automation. Automated cars will have sensors that far exceed the scope and precision of the human eye, and unlike the human brain, computer processors won't fail to register the presence of a bicyclist in an unexpected setting.

  2. @ Trevor: Perhaps the jetpack analogy is overstated.

    However, my primary fear is that aggressive intellectual property squabbles will decrease competition in the driverless cars arena. One consequence of decreased competition could be a slower increase in quality. If the cars have a vastly extended learning curve (because of rival companies holding key patents on the basic design issues) then they may end up being much less safe.

    This is really the distinction. A patent on the idea of mirrors in a car would have slowed innovation by giving the patent holder a massive market advantage. How does this help accelerate the adoption of the best possible car system?

  3. @Joseph: Agreed. I think that overly restrictive intellectual property rights might really muck up the evolution of car automation. Still, I have hard time not being excited about the technology.