The July/August 2018 issue of Patent Lawyer magazine  briefed us on a newly updated patent application originally filed by Uber on January 28, 2018, Safe routing for navigation systems (US20180180430, US APPLICATIONS, 28-JUN-2018) . The piece juxtaposed Uber’s invention with “a similar system” of Microsoft’s that emerged in 2012. The article did not name that system.
The tickler in the story was the potential for further controversy that might have begun with the Microsoft invention. The intention of the navigation service upgrade is to provide users with routes which they feel “safe” traveling. It seems that some interpreters of that term felt that it meant users of the service would unjustly avoid certain socio-economic areas. Perhaps drivers providing transportation services would not pick up or wait for clients or people would not patronize businesses in circumnavigated locations. Due to “vague and unclear application text”, the outcome of implementing the 2012 invention is not understood.
Does the Uber patent application suffer the same misinterpretation?
What is Safety?
Safety can be a subjective term. Sometimes it is just a feeling. Even with no direct threat present, a person’s state of mind can cause fear and anxiety. Further, people’s perceptions of what is and what is not dangerous greatly vary. Feeling safe cannot always be quantified.
Still, it is a factor that Uber recognizes as having a business impact. The ‘0430 patent application addresses the following problem: “… safety is a concern that is of particular importance to a number of users, such as those traveling with their families, those traveling at night, etc. Unfortunately, existing systems provide little or no ability for users to determine routes that maximize safety, or that at least take safety into account.” Making people feel safer is a good value-add for Uber transportation services. And the approach this solution takes for both clients and drivers; it facilitates “requester-provider matching and routing by a transportation services system that takes into account the safety of the driver and of the rider.”
The crux of Uber’s novel system is in data collection, storage, analysis, and application to derive the route that best suits the immediate needs of both the driver and rider with safety as a consideration. The system uses both stored and real-time data, from interpersonal relationships to ambient light, to quantify safety. The data store comprises user data (i.e., profile, ID, etc.), map data, travel data (e.g., number of people in a group, etc.), vehicle data, and safety data. Data sources can include third-party collections from news outlets, schools, governments, social media, weather services, events websites, etc., while other information is user-configured or collected from sensors on the vehicles.
In unique combinations, safety data points include, but are not limited to:
- Time of day for drop-off and pick-up as it can relate to traffic volume at a location, weather conditions, schools in session, etc.
- Vehicle activity that reflects the driver’s tendencies (e.g., braking, speeding, swerving, etc.)
- Incident data (e.g., violent acts, thefts, vehicle accidents, dangerous road segments, etc.)
- Establishment names and types (e.g., restaurant, shops, bars, etc.)
Combinations of these points are unique because through the associated application the user can assign weights to selections based on what is most important to them. Do they need to save time, or take the route with the least number of potholes? Do they want to avoid icy bridges in January, or avoid the driver that they aggravated on the last trip? (An annoyed driver could compromise one’s safety, after all.) Are they traveling with their children, or is it a night out with friends? Any of these options could impact decisions made to ensure a safe trip. The Uber solution looks at not only where people want to go, but also why and how they want to get there.
But How Does it Work?
What does the system do with the data and the user-imposed weights to determine the safest route?
The system attempts to provide “service neutrality”. It wants to quantify and match requests and information and present the logical solution. It can even offer multiple solutions, and then let the user choose the final route. At a very high and simplified level, the process begins with a server that receives and stores all the data (described above). A navigation module pulls the data and runs calculators for driver ability, road segment safety, and route. Each of these receives safety scores. Combining the scores with user input, the system derives the best routes.
As for the analytics running the show, the patent application offers the following explanation: “As is known in the art, the computer 500 is adapted to execute computer program modules for providing functionality described herein. As used herein, the term “module” refers to computer program logic utilized to provide the specified functionality. Thus, a module can be implemented in hardware, firmware, and/or software. In one embodiment, program modules are stored on the storage device 508, loaded into the memory 506, and executed by the processor 502.”
The patent application presents several detailed embodiments as it describes the contributions of each module. For example, in finding the best route, the route calculator runs a “weighted shortest path graph algorithm”. Work in a single module is completed differently for different embodiments. The system must be ready to accept real-time changes in the environment, functionality of a vehicle, or a person’s social situation. If X occurs, is the route still safe?
This patent application’s variety of input and attempt to normalize often dynamic data might provide a defensible level of objectivity. The service must feed the human sensitivity to safety and then follow through by providing that safety. It is not a matter of avoiding the undesirable. It is about filling a need and doing it quickly. Uber’s application conveys its success: “… methods and systems described… can utilize data relevant to safety to improve the safety of the trip without negatively affecting service for any particular area.”
Perhaps repercussions remain that leave open the controversy over route determination. But that doesn’t keep a patent application from becoming a granted patent.
References[1, 3, 4] (2018, July/August). Uber files patent application for avoidance of unsafe areas. Patent Lawyer, digital edition. P. 11. Accessed August 24, 2018.  InnovationQ. https://iq.ip.com.