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A Look at Historical Patents: Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of media attention lately. However, few people realize that the concept of self-driving cars goes back much farther than recent developments by Google or Uber, and patent records document that history. Here at GPS, we spend our days delving deep into the history of patent filings and legislation. Here’s a closer look at some of the historical patents surrounding the self-driving car.

The First Self-Driving Car

A radio-controlled driverless car existed as far back as 1925, when it was demonstrated by Francis Houdina in Manhattan, according to the New York Times. However, the first commercial success of something resembling a self-driving car came in a different form.

The first patent for what became known as “cruise control” was issued to Ralph R. Teetor in 1950 for a speed control device. Teetor gained an engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912. He then joined his family business, which manufactured auto piston rings and became known as Perfect Circle. In 1922 he patented a selective gear shift, which he later sold to Bendix Corp. However, the idea that put him on the map of patent history came later.

The concept of affecting speed with a device had actually existed for over a century with steam engines. Teetor’s device applied the principle to automobiles, calculating ground speed in order to determine how much to throttle the carburetor. The device was based on the premise that a vehicle’s speed can be reduced by controlling the engine’s speed.

After experimenting with cruise control devices in the 1940s, Teetor was awarded a patent for a “Speedostat” in 1953. Cruise control technology first appeared in vehicles with the 1958 Chrysler Imperial, New Yorker and Windsor models. By 1960 it had become a standard feature in Cadillacs. The first truly autonomous cars began appearing in the 1980s.

Modern Development

Since then hundreds of patents have been granted for self-driving vehicle technology. In 2013 VisLab demonstrated its autonomous BRAiVE model in Parma, Italy. The company has been granted its first self-driving car technology patent, which is for a camera and sensor system to track data.

In the 21st century tech companies such as Google, Amazon and Tesla have worked on developing self-driving cars. One primary characteristic of all of these ventures is the increasingly compact computer that runs the vehicle. Autonomous cars all rely on sensors that track traffic and other data involving the vehicle. The system analyzes the data and then makes decisions for steering, braking and other driving functions.

Since most US utility patents last 20 years and driverless cars have been around for nearly a century, companies can use the research and technology from the past, and then obtain patents from improving on history. Between 2012 and 2016 over 5,000 mobility patents have been filed by a dozen automotive and tech companies. Over half of these patents are held by six automakers: Audi, Daimler, General Motors, Volkswagen, BMW and Tesla.


As is evident in the realm of self-driving cars, studying patents of the past can help you understand your own patent case. Here at GPS, we help inventors, business leaders, and patent professionals understand what to expect in the future by getting reliable data about the past. Learn more about our patent search services and call Global Patent Solutions at 877.274.2011 to learn more about what it takes to acquire or protect a patent.