September 22nd is ‘World Car Free Day’, when cities around the world temporarily ban cars from the roads in an effort to raise awareness of issues such as carbon emissions and urban pollution.
Last weekend it was Paris – usually a riot of traffic – where the engines fell silent and similar events are taking place everywhere from Seoul to Taranaki, New Zealand.
Beyond highlighting the problems of urban pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, World Car Free Day also highlights a number of technological trends that will transform our understanding of what a car is, and also transform the way we transport ourselves around urban centres and the energy infrastructure that supports this.
The reality is that, even without initiatives such as World Car Free Day, the way we drive is changing and the cars of tomorrow may well bear little resemblance to the cars of today.
It is often the case that technological innovation results from external pressures – and this is as true of the automotive sector as it is of any other. In the case of automotive, these trends include an increasingly urban population, legislation aimed at improving air quality, and global efforts to curb CO2 emissions.
An increasingly urban population has the potential to disrupt traditional models of car ownership and there are indications that the UK – along with other comparable countries – has already hit ‘peak car’.
Research from earlier in 2018 for example, indicated that ownership of a driving licence peaked for young people in 1992 with 48% of 17-20 year olds and 75% of 21-29 year olds holding a licence. By 2014 these figures had dropped to 29% and 63% respectively.
Concerns about air quality and emissions are also driving innovation and change with electric car sales steadily increasing as a proportion of the market and sales in Europe hitting the 1 million mark for the first time earlier this year. This in turn is forcing innovation in the energy industry.
While the National Grid currently has enough capacity to handle a nation of EV users, if all those users were charging their vehicles simultaneously then managing that demand would be an issue.
If such charging were to occur overnight for example, along with the ever increasing number of consumer electronics devices, this will begin to disrupt conventional energy supply and demand models raising the question: are we losing off-peak energy? This is where innovations such as smart grids and smart charging come to the fore.
Driverless cars too represent not just a technical advance, but also an opportunity to develop business models that disrupt models of car ownership. Could we arrive at a situation for example, where driverless cars come to occupy a space somewhere between public and private ownership through the use of sharable, autonomous, ride hailing apps?
While only the future will tell how these developments progress, what is clear is that the businesses best placed to capitalise on these trends, will be those that innovate. Patent filing statistics bear this out and transport remains one of the largest categories for patents at the EPO, with energy-related patents not far behind and growing (in fact energy-related patents from the UK have nearly doubled since 2008).
And while it may be some time before we are all being spirited about by driverless, artificially intelligent vehicles, patent filing data again reveals that a huge amount of R&D is underway. Last year saw 36,660 patent applications globally relating to driverless or autonomous vehicles for example, up from 11,863 10 years ago and just 4,326 20 years ago.
Protecting this innovation is of course vital as behind each development is a huge amount of time and money spent. The right intellectual property portfolio will enable those companies and entrepreneurs willing to embrace the next generation of transport and energy technology to succeed.
Andrew Docherty, Chartered (UK) and European Patent Attorney, Marks & Clerk