In late February, Bloomberg published an article with the headline “Apple in Talks to Buy Self-Driving Sensors, Key Step in Car Plan” quoting “people, who asked not to be identified due to the private nature of the discussions.” It may be considered common knowledge that Apple takes significant efforts to keep details of upcoming products and its supply chain a secret. For that reason, I tend to be cautious about any news with respect to Apple’s suppliers and only trust either joint press releases or reverse engineering results. To Bloomberg’s credit, the article includes the reference to news from 2019, when Apple talked to potential LIDAR suppliers, “three people familiar with the discussions said.” So, let’s assume that the sources did not have an interest in pushing their LIDAR investment portfolio.
LIDAR is an acronym for “Light Detection and Ranging” or “Laser Imaging, Detection, and Ranging”, a technology for three-dimensional mapping of an environment. LIDAR technology has gained a lot of attention over the last decade since it is being used in the development of autonomous cars and is also used along with other sensory perception technologies to sense a vehicles’ environment. Other sensory perception technologies are ultrasonic, optical cameras, and long/mid/short range radar. If you see something on the roof of an (semi-)autonomous car, which looks a bit like a police siren, that is likely a LIDAR unit.
The analysis and charts shown below was created using LexisNexis® PatentSight®, a proprietary patent analytics solution. We set-up a LIDAR technology field, but limited the technology field to the LIDAR system itself and did not consider its various applications. The reason for this approach is the expectation that Apple will most likely add its own sensor data processing to a LIDAR sensor system.
The bubble chart above shows the average patent quality (Competitive Impact) versus the patent Portfolio Size, measured as the number of simple patent families; and the bubble areas are proportional to the respective LIDAR portfolio Patent Asset Index, a measure for the strength of a patent portfolio. Among the top 10 patent owners by LIDAR portfolio strength, are patent owners from different industries. Among them Apple ranks ninth.
So which company could supply the LIDAR system to Apple? Considering Apple’s experience with Samsung as a supplier and competitor at the same time, potential competitors appear rather unlikely to get the design win; and the focus shifts to LIDAR suppliers, which are focused on the sensor system.
To identify these focused LIDAR suppliers, we analyse the amount of a supplier’s total patent portfolio strength originating from LIDAR patents. The modified bubble chart shows the average patent quality (Competitive Impact) versus the LIDAR patents share of the patent owners total portfolio. For example, Velodyne’s and Ouster’s LIDAR patents account for more than 50% their total portfolio strength, respectively; and therefore, it can be concluded, that their patent portfolios are focused on LIDAR technology.
If the patent owners are filtered by the share, which LIDAR patents contribute to the patent owner’s total portfolio strength, the patent average quality (Competitive Impact) versus the patent Portfolio Size bubble chart can be redrawn. The shown 10 potential suppliers are all reasonable except for DeepMap and Aurora Innovation which are a mapping service and a software company, respectively. Eventually, other factors such as costs and size will play an important role as well, and we should follow up with a solid-state LIDAR analysis.
After going through these analyses, your guess is as good as mine as to with whom Apple finally will chose to partner. As you can see there are some serious players in this field with strong innovation portfolios. Want to schedule a deep dive into this or any other technology?
See how to use the Patent Asset Index for patent portfolio benchmarking.
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