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Apple signs EU complaint decrying FRAND patent abuse related to autonomous cars

Apple and a coalition of tech and automotive companies in a letter to the European Commission this week said patent licensing abuses are stifling innovation of self-driving cars and other connected devices.

A group of 27 companies including BMW, Cisco, Daimler, Dell, Ford, Lenovo and others informed the European Union's antitrust watchdog that unnamed parties are allegedly refusing to license standard essential patents on fair and reasonable terms, The Irish Times reports.

While the report falls short of naming FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) contract laws, the letter's language suggests those issues are in play.

"The practice of some [standard essential patent] owners to grant licenses only to certain companies . . . prevents companies across the internet of things and related innovative technology industries from planning investments in R&D," the letter reads. ""This practice stifles innovation, discourages new market entry, and ties suppliers to established customers. As a result, European businesses and consumers may pay higher prices than they would pay in a more competitive market."

What patents are being held back and by whom is unknown, as the letter fails to identify parties involved. As noted by the report, however, the filing was received by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Thierry Breton shortly after Nokia came under fire for its refusal to license components for autonomous vehicles.

Regulators recently promised t investigate the Finnish telecommunications company on complaints from Daimler, supplier Bury and other associated firms. For its part, Nokia has called the allegations "meritless," the report said.

What Apple hopes to gain from a European probe is also unknown, though the tech giant is known to be developing its own self-driving car technology under the auspices of Project Titan.

Apple's ambitious effort to build a branded autonomous vehicle started in 2015 and at one point had over 1,000 employees working on various technologies, the results of which are only now seeing light in patent disclosures. The effort was put on hold in late 2016 after development roadblocks led to disagreements in Apple's upper ranks.

While the iPhone maker continues to rebuild its self-driving car team, and test its platform on California roads, a consumer-ready product is not expected for years, if at all.

Beyond autonomous vehicles, Apple could be angling to protect technology that underpins its valuable mobile device lineup by signing today's reported EU letter. More specifically, and as hinted at by the cohort of tech industry signatories, advances in 5G could be at the heart of the matter. The ultra-fast wireless protocol is important for the operation of self-driving vehicles, but vital for the rollout of next-generation smartphones and mobile computers.