Vehicle Terrain Response Technology Found to Qualify as Patent-Eligible Subject Matter

July 9th, 2019

Summary: In Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. v. Bentley Motors Ltd., the Eastern District of Virginia addressed whether claims directed to Jaguar Land Rover Ltd.’s Terrain Response technology qualified as patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. No. 2:18CV320, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108878 (E.D. Va. June 26, 2019).  Using the two-part test set forth in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, 573 U.S. 208, 217 (2014), the court found that the claimed Terrain Response technology was not directed to an abstract idea, but even if it was, it had improved the efficiency of existing vehicle control technology in a way that transformed the abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention. See Jaguar, slip op. at 14, 27-31.  Thus, the court upheld the patent-eligibility of a smart vehicle control system, which may please vehicle technology developers, who continue to seek patent protection for various advanced vehicle technologies such as those related to autonomous vehicles.

Congress provided that any new and useful “process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter” constitutes patent-eligible subject matter. 35 U.S.C. § 101 (2012).  However, courts have long held that there are exceptions to § 101 that constitute patent-ineligible subject matter. Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 569 U.S. 576, 589 (2013).  When determining whether a patent is invalid for claiming such patent-ineligible subject matter, courts turn to the two-step framework set forth in Alice. Jaguar, slip op. at 14.

Under the first step of the two-step framework, a court must determine whether the disputed claims recite a patent-ineligible concept, such as an abstract idea. Alice, 573 U.S. at 217.  If the claims are directed toward an ineligible concept, then the court must move to step two of Alice. Id.  If the claims do not recite an ineligible concept, however, then the court may find the claims are directed to a patent-eligible invention without addressing step two. Jaguar, slip op. at 27.

Step two requires the court to determine whether the challenged claims include limitations that transform the ineligible concept into a patent-eligible invention and “in practice amount[] to significantly more than a patent upon the [ineligible concept] itself.” Alice, 573 U.S. at 217-19.  If the claims include sufficient “additional features,” then the claims at issue are deemed to be directed to eligible subject matter. Id. at 221 (citing Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 77 (2012)).

Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. (“Jaguar”) owns U.S. Patent No. RE46,828, filed Sep. 27, 2016 (“the ’828 patent”), which is a reissue of U.S. Patent No. 7,349,776. Jaguar, slip op. at 2 (citations omitted).  The ’828 patent is directed to a vehicle Terrain Response technology that electronically tunes the vehicle subsystems in response to one of several driving modes that the driver selects. ’828 patent, col. 2, ll. 3-9.  For example, when the driver turns a knob to select Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud and Ruts, Sand, or Rocks, a vehicle control system electronically configures several vehicle subsystems to operate in a manner that is suitable for the selected surface terrain. Id. at col. 9, l. 59 – col. 10, l. 6.  Jaguar’s Terrain Response technology is included on several of its SUVs, including the Range Rover. Jaguar, slip op. at 1-2 (citations omitted).

In 2016, Bentley Motors Ltd. and Bentley Motors, Inc. (collectively, “Bentley”) released the Bentayga, an SUV that directly competes with Jaguar’s Range Rover. Id. at 4 (citation omitted).  The Bentayga can be equipped in such a way that a driver may select from one of four off-road settings: Snow, Ice & Wet Grass; Dirt & Gravel; Mud & Trail; and Sand, to automatically adjust various vehicle subsystems for improved off-road performance. Id. at 4-5 (citation omitted).

Jaguar sued Bentley, alleging the above-described functionality included in the Bentayga infringed the ’828 patent. Id. at 9 (citations omitted).  Bentley filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the ’828 patent was invalid because it fails “to claim patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101.” Id. at 9, 11.  Therefore, the court evaluated the claims of the ’828 patent under the two-step Alice test. See id. at 17-31.

Under step one of Alice, the court evaluated whether the claims of the ’828 patent were directed to an abstract idea. Id. at 17.  The court first determined the “character as a whole” of the claims related to “manipulating multiple vehicle subsystems to allow a vehicle to better adapt to driving on various types of [terrains].” Id. at 18.  Then, the court turned to patent-eligibility principles and prior § 101 cases to determine whether the claims, considering their “character as a whole,” were directed to an abstract idea. Id.

In particular, with respect to whether or not the claims were directed to an abstract idea, the parties disputed “1) whether the claims were directed to an improvement in computer functionality, [or] 2) whether the claims were directed to a mental process that can be performed [by a human].” Id. at 18.  Jaguar argued its Terrain Response technology improved the functionality of vehicle control systems because the technology permitted drivers to simultaneously manipulate multiple subsystems. Id. at 19.  Conversely, Bentley asserted the claims recited a computerization of activities that a human could perform, such as slowing while driving downhill. Id. at 20.

The court found the claims of the ’828 patent did not recite an abstract idea. See id. at 22-24.  Specifically, the court drew several analogies between Jaguar’s Terrain Response technology and patentable cruise control systems. Id. at 23-24.  For example, the court explained that the ’828 patent’s claimed technology resembled the patentable cruise control systems because it provided a tangible technology that physically adjusted vehicle subsystems for improved vehicle control, e.g., by controlling wheel spin and adjusting the suspension to change the vehicle’s height. See id. at 23-24 (citing Carrum Techs., LLC v. BMW of N. Am., LLC, No. 1:18-CV-01645-RGA, 2019 WL 1779863, at *3 (D. Del. Apr. 23, 2019) (finding adaptive cruise control technology patent-eligible because, inter alia, it was directed to a tangible system that physically impacted the speed of a moving object)).

Further, the court noted humans probably are not capable of performing what is taught by the ’828 patent claims. Id.  The court explained that although drivers can press the brakes to regulate speed, they typically are not capable of changing their vehicle’s wheel spin or suspension while it is moving. Id. at 26-27.  The court noted that while “[d]rivers may continue to engage in the same mental processes, . . . [here,] the vehicle itself has [been] adapted to optimize and make driving on different surfaces more efficient.” Id. at 26.  Thus, the court held the ’828 patent did not recite an abstract idea because the claims were directed to improvements in computer functionality and provided physical means of implementing the functionality. Id. at 27.

Alternatively, the court found that even if the claims recited an abstract idea, the claims were still patentable under step two of Alice. Id. at 27.  To reach its conclusion, the court evaluated Jaguar’s Terrain Response technology to determine if it improved the efficiency of existing technology in a sufficiently inventive manner. Id. at 28 (citing Berkheimer v. HP Inc., 881 F.3d 1360, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2018)).  For example, the court reviewed publications that praised the Terrain Response technology for being “the best way to handle a wide range of difficult terrain.” Id. at 28-30 (citations omitted).  The court concluded Jaguar’s Terrain Response technology sufficiently improved the efficiency of vehicle technology in an inventive manner that transformed the abstract idea of controlling vehicle subsystems into a patent-eligible concept. See id.

The court’s decision in Jaguar provides an intriguing peek into the § 101 analysis of advanced vehicle technology.  Parties investing in and developing advanced vehicle technology may want to follow this case law to see if future courts apply Alice’s two-step framework in a similar manner to other advanced vehicle technologies, such as autonomous vehicle technology.  For example, the court’s rationale in Jaguar (and Carrum Techs.) may provide a basis for a future court to find certain autonomous vehicle technology patent eligible.