Ford Just Patented an Absurd Movie Screen Windshield For Driverless Cars

If Ford has its way, we’ll all be comfortably watching porn (or a nice movie) while hurtling along the highway at 70 miles-per-hour.

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A new patent issued to the auto giant on March 1 includes plans for a driverless car with a weirdly complex built-in entertainment system. The patent describes an autonomous car with screens and projectors that obstruct the windshield and fold into the ceiling when a driver wants to take the wheel.

The dual-screen system patent was first covered by Forbes, and it sounds absolutely insane: The first display configuration includes a projection screen that could be set up near the windshield and a projector capable of descending from the ceiling. According to Ford, the metaphorical fireworks would begin once the car sensed that it was in autonomous mode.

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The car would revert to its second display once a person took over driving duties, at which point “the entertainment system controller may retract the projection screen and projector.” If your irritating children still want to watch Sesame Street, however, never fear. Ford suggests switching to another display, such as one stuck in the dashboard or, God help us, the rearview mirror:

In the “second display,” the screen screen is sucked back up into the ceiling. (United States Patent Office)
In the “second display,” the screen screen is sucked back up into the ceiling. (United States Patent Office)

While this sounds cool and everything, it also induces a mild feeling of terror. You know when your dumb friend is driving and won’t stop shoving his phone in your face? That kind of terror pops up whenever I think of the “first display.” Sure, the car is driving itself, but my neurotic, control-freak nature stops that from being anything close to a relaxing experience.

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Of course, given the ambiguous language throughout the patent filing, it remains to be seen whether Ford will actually implement these ideas. And company spokesman Allan Hall also cautioned that your driving-while-fapping dreams might be meaningless: “We submit patents on innovative ideas as a normal course of business,” he told Forbes. “Patent applications are intended to protect new ideas but aren’t necessarily an indication of new business or product plans.” At CES this year, however, the company announced plans to reach its claws further into the autonomous car market, so who knows!

Meanwhile, Ford competitor Volvo isn’t shying away from its own ridiculous plans for driverless cars: it wants to put tray tables and screens in its vehicles, turning them into first-class airline seats, as Gizmodo’s Alissa Walker put it. And that might be sort of cool, if done right! (And assuming I can get ahold of some Valium to calm my nerves.) If we don’t have to spend our time driving, we may as well indulge in some leisurely activities.

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And also porn.

[Forbes]

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Contact the author at sophie.kleeman@gizmodo.com.

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DISCUSSION

The US Patent system switched to a “first to file” system in 2013 (which matches pretty much all other countries). It used to be “first to invent,” meaning that even if someone else filed a patent on your idea first, if you could prove you were already working on it before them, you could file a claim (which is “better,” but in reality it rarely, if ever, happened. Which was part of the reasoning for moving away from it and standardizing with the international scene—more benefit in laying the groundwork for international claims than in hanging onto a feature that no one used).

However, this new system has caused a lot of larger companies to change their intellectual property policies.

Under the old “first to invent” system, you could sit on an idea internally and see if it bore fruit. Then you just file that patent before you go public with a product, documented with your development materials from the previous period.

Under the “first to file” system, though, companies are incentivized to basically patent-spam. Have an idea? File it. Dumb idea? File it. “What about-”file file file file.

It might be an urban legend in the design world, but I actually believe it—the story is that Apple has a lawyer sitting in on their design meetings, and they examine absolutely anything that gets discussed as a possible patent filing.

Now, that’s a nice bit of crazy. But is there any actual benefit to the spam?

The answer is “depends who you are.” Let’s look at Ford, here. I’d be willing to bet that most of the people involved aren’t thinking that windshield projection is going to catch on anytime soon. However, patents are written to make the broadest possible specific claim, if that makes any sense. It is entirely possible that some minor element of a filing like this might be used in a real-world case.

For example, maybe Chevy rolls out a fancy new HUD system in 2017. It uses a projector mounted to the dome light to put a giant see-through GPS map on the window. Neat!

Well, Ford may then whip this baby out and go ACTUALLY, guys, it looks like we patented something with a roof-mounted projector. Sooooo. Pay up. (Note that I didn’t actually read the text of this patent, I’m just making up an example here).

Then they’d argue about it in court forever and who the hell knows who wins. But Ford would, at worst, be out for the cost of the trial, and at best they get to make Chevy take their new MapFace cars off the road or back-pay them damages and royalties for every one sold. It’s a pretty solid cost/benefit ratio. And before you think this is too crazy, I’ll just point you towards the infamous Apple/Samsung “rounded corners” fiasco.

At the end of the day, this is just a new way for gigantic companies to do business and slap each other around a bit. It kind of screws the smaller players who can’t afford to get in on games like this, but they’re also less likely to become a target.

That used to bother me a lot personally, as I have a startup with some proprietary designs myself, but then I learned that most patents provide a lot less protection than most designers/startups think they do, and getting comprehensive coverage can be so expensive that it’s a moot point anyways. Unless you can nail down a utility patent (with absolutely no other way to solve the same problem), or can afford to file a ton of defensive patents on close alternatives/derivatives ($$$$), you’re probably better off just being the first to market anyways. And then it’s a public disclosure and ain’t nobody getting a patent on it.