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Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) asserted U.S. Patent No. RE46, 828, titled "Vehicle Control" against its competitor Bentley Motors Limited. The patent is related to electronically controlling the vehicle's subsystems (e.g., engine, brakes, traction control) to operate in a manner that is suitable for driving on a particular off-road surface. The driver would use an input to select grass, gravel, snow, mud and so on.
Bentley filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the '828 patent was directed to nothing more than the computerization of what drivers already do – e.g. slow down when going downhill. The Eastern District of Virginia, however, was unconvinced. The court noted that at the pleading stage and construing the pleadings in the light most favorable to JLR, the '828 patent is directed to "how technology performs the ultimate function of adapting to drive on different surfaces."
The court acknowledged that drivers may go through different mental steps depending on driving conditions, but the '828 patent teaches physically changing the vehicle's subsystems: "wheel spin changes while driving on certain surfaces (claim 21), the suspension changes the height of the vehicle (claim 41), and speed controls are engaged while going downhill (claim 46)." Mental processes are involved "but the vehicle itself has adapted to optimize and make driving on different surfaces more efficient." The court concluded that the patent claims are "directed at both improvements in computer functionality and providing concrete, physical means of implementing the functionality," which the court determined is not an abstract idea.
Despite finding the patent claims not directed to an abstract idea, the court proceeded to the second step of the Alice inquiry to consider whether the claims contain an "inventive concept." The court found that Bentley failed to show by "clear and convincing evidence that the claims are invalid" and that the "technology embodied in the '828 patent improves efficiency."
Interestingly, the court also pointed to a number of articles and reviews by third parties praising the technology embodied in the '828 patent. All of this, the court said, suggests that the technology "improves existing vehicle control technology by permitting drivers to control multiple vehicle subsystems when driving in particular conditions or on certain surfaces with a 'twist' or a 'flick.'" For all these reasons, the court denied Bentley's motion to dismiss.
If interested in this case, read about the Federal Circuit invalidating a patent related to networked electric car charging stations.
Claim 21 of the '828 Patent, one of the asserted claims, is pasted below:
A vehicle control system having a driver input device for selecting a driving surface, the vehicle control system arranged to control a plurality of vehicle subsystems each of which is operable in a plurality of subsystem configuration modes, wherein the vehicle control system is operable in a plurality of driving modes in each of which it is arranged to select the subsystem configuration modes in a manner suitable for a respective driving surface, and further wherein the plurality of driving modes includes at least two off-road modes in which the subsystem configurations are controlled in a manner suitable for driving on respective off-road driving surfaces, and an on-road mode in which the subsystem configurations are controlled in a manner suitable for driving on-road, and still further wherein one of the off-road modes is a sand mode in which the vehicle subsystems are controlled in a manner suitable for driving on sand.
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