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  • Brian Trotter

Zoox would bring Amazon a large patent portfolio, and also an exceptionally strong one.

The latest merger news on Wall Street is that Amazon is in talks to acquire Zoox, a company focused on developing hardware and software to enable autonomous driving (https://www.wsj.com/articles/amazon-in-advanced-talks-to-buy-self-driving-car-tech-company-zoox-11590538611)

Zoox was founded just back in 2014, and has already built a portfolio of 78 granted patents, and has many more applications working their way through the patent office. And it's not just the sheer number of patents in their portfolio. The quality of their portfolio is very high.


How do we know this? By looking at two aspects of their patents.


1. Citations


The Zoox patents are cited frequently by their main competitors in the autonomous driving space. This tells us their competitors are operating in the same technical area, looking to expand on Zoox's inventions. For example, the citation list in Zoox's patent #9,507,346 ("Teleoperation system and method for trajectory modification of autonomous vehicles") is a literal "who's-who" of the autonomous driving industry: Ford, Bosch, Waymo, IBM, Lyft, Toyota, Uber, AT&T, Huawei, GM, Mobileye, Apple, Volvo, BMW. And there are even a few unexpected ones there too: State Farm Insurance and Sikorsky Aircraft. When can I get my autonomous helicopter??



2. Rejections


Citations aren't the whole story. Those citations could merely be inventions that are similar to a Zoox patent. Another inventor may be saying, "this Zoox patent is close, but mine's a distinct improvement that is better".


The real indicator of a valuable patent is rejections. When those other inventors cite a Zoox patent, the Patent Office may come back and say, "sorry, you can't patent your invention because it is the same as that Zoox patent". That's what's called a 'rejection'. Those later claims are rejected as being either not novel or merely an obvious extension of an existing invention. This indicates a patent that is erecting a real barrier to the competition. And Zoox has a number of recent patents with an impressive list of rejections:


  • US Patent 9,517,767 ("Internal safety systems for robotic vehicles") is used in rejections of later patent applications by Toyota Research and PonyAI, a large Chinese AI company.

  • US Patent 9,507,346 ("Teleoperation system and method for trajectory modification of autonomous vehicles") is referenced in rejections of later applications by Toyota, IBM and Ford.

  • US Patent 9,612,123 ("Adaptive mapping to navigate autonomous vehicles responsive to physical environment changes") is referenced in rejections of applications by Toyota, Uber, Huawei, and PlusAI, a Cupertino-based AI company working on autonomous truck technology (interesting...). There's even an interesting rejection of an application by Mentor Graphics, traditionally an electronics EDA company that looks to be getting into autonomous technologies. I'm curious to dig more into that one.


Amazon is clearly moving towards rollout of more autonomous delivery systems. This Zoox acquisition would be a strong move in that direction, bringing key technologies and a very strong patent portfolio with a history of putting up obstacles to their key competitors. Amazon's acquisition of this portfolio would strongly position them against the other key players in autonomous driving.



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