Although high-tech companies are becoming increasingly involved in the innovation of the automotive industry, they are far from catching up with traditional automakers in the research and development of self-driving technologies, according to a recent report by Thomson Reuters' intellectual property and science department.
The 2016 State of Self-Driving Automotive Innovation report recorded more than 22,000 unique patents in self-driving from January 2010 through October 2015, and the trend is continuing its upward climb.
Those inventions fall into three categories: autonomous driving, which involves the act of propelling and navigating a vehicle without human control; driver assistance, which enhances vehicle safety when the driver is in control; and telematics, which allows cars to communicate with one another while on the road by using multiple technologies.
Japanese automaker Toyota is the overall global leader in autonomous automotive innovation, with more than 2,000 patents in the three categories over the period, including nearly 1,500 in autonomous driving. It is followed by Bosch, Denso, Hyundai and General Motors.
Reuters quoted a Toyota spokesman as saying the company views a fully autonomous car as a long-term goal, but one that must wait for driving systems that never make a mistake.
Tech and media companies such as Apple and Google that are entering the market have "definite advantages" in terms of their contributions to the future car. However, most of them lack the necessary manufacturing expertise and facilities possessed by traditional automotive companies that can transform R&D projects to viable, commercial realities, the report says.
"Automakers aren't as good as technology companies in tooting their own horns," said Tony Trippe, principal author of the report. "But when you look at the patent data, the automakers are all over this."
Japan holds the world's leadership in autonomous driving innovation, with four of the top five innovators in the field. Some companies and institutions are regarded as "potential surprises", such as Amazon, IBM, Microsoft and Southeast University in China.
In the area of driver assistance, Germany has three of the top five innovators, while Hyundai, BMW and Ford have the largest recent jumps in their patent portfolios. The report also noted that China's Chang'an University is the leading academic institution with IP in the area.
Telematics has the least activity among the three categories in term of invention volume. General Motors is the top innovator in the area.
The report noted that Apple is "a bit of an outlier" in self-driving innovation, as it has only one patent across all categories.
However, the raw number of patents does not necessarily equate to leadership in developing self-driving cars, Trippe said, because the quality of patents is also important.
In addition, the numbers may not reflect the current state because of the time between patent filings and when the filings are published.
The report forecasts that 2016 will be a year for much growth and advancement in the area of self-driving cars, and innovators will partner with each other to share their expertise.
There had been rumors that Ford and Google would announce a joint venture to make autonomous vehicles at the 2016 International Consumer Electronics Show last week, and the report anticipated such an announcement, but it did not happen.
Ford CEO Mark Fields told BBC that Ford has been working with many companies with "conversations in private", but did not share further details.
He said the company has worked for more than 10 years on autonomous vehicles and has "a number of miles" of testing on public roads "that are giving us a lot of data to improve the algorithm and the performance of the vehicles".
US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (left) inspects a self-driving car at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images