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How many engineers does it take to invent a three-step method?

… apparently fifteen!

GM patent application publication 20170213165 addresses a legitimate problem facing ridesharing in autonomous vehicles: How does a rider know that she is getting into the right vehicle? GM is offering several solutions. For example, as a shared vehicle approaches pick up of a rider, the rider’s smartphone vibrates to indicate that the shared vehicle is approaching. The vibration increases or patterns (syncs) as the vehicle grows nearer. Or the vibration is coordinated/harmonized with color/light/sound from vehicle for confirmation to the rider that they are approaching the correct vehicle. In another alternative a visible display on an outside of the shared car shows a picture/icon/likeness and/or name or other identifier of the rider to be picked up.

The idea is summarized in the claim having three steps:

1. A method of operating a vehicle, the method comprising:
(1) selecting an identifier that is associated with a vehicle reservation for passenger service in the vehicle;
(2) initiating a pick-up portion of the vehicle reservation for making the vehicle available to a passenger; and
(3) displaying the identifier at the vehicle during the pick-up portion of the passenger service.

Interestingly, the patent lists 15 (!) inventors. Maybe they divided the problem into three teams of 5 engineers each? To be fair: Some inventors may have contributed to dependent claims. But it still presents a significant challenge to get inventorship right if you have this many inventors and amend claims during prosecution. At Smartpat we made it part of our issue-fee checklist that we send to clients, asking them to double-check if the listed inventors are still correct after we have an allowed set of claims.

An outlier? Not necessarily. In application 20170210352 GM claims a different three-step method:

1. A method of automatically maintaining a level of cleanliness a vehicle, comprising:
(1) receiving, by a processor, at least one sensor signal from a sensor that monitors for particulates within an interior of a vehicle;
(2) determining, by the processor, a level of uncleanliness of the vehicle based on the sensor signal; and
(3) selectively generating, by the processor, at least one of a control signal to a cleaning element of the vehicle and a notification message based on the determining to achieve the level of cleanliness.

And again, the application lists 15 inventors.

Comment: 1

Dan DeClerck

If that patent is subject to litigation, an enterprising attorney may question who invented it, and who was responsible for claims. If the inventorship is in doubt, and there are competing alternate workarounds, was anything really invented? While I don’t have access to Lexis-Nexus, I’m sure there cases where this played a pivotal role. A similar case being litigated now, is related to the current “Fidget spinner”.

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